Still Rural, Mullen Way Sparks Heartfelt Debate Over Old Neighborhoods
By IAN FEIN
Saying that the changing character of historic middle-class neighborhoods is a concern better addressed Islandwide, the Martha's Vineyard Commission last week opted against creating special zoning regulations for Mullen Way, a narrow tree-lined side street in Edgartown.
The 11-3 vote came late Thursday night after an hour of deliberation and two hours of testimony in a packed public hearing with more than five dozen people in attendance. More than one commission member said the decision was one of the most difficult faced by the regional planning agency in the last few years.
Brought by a group of residents who felt that existing regulations could not protect them from a proposed subdivision at the end of their road, the nomination of Mullen Way as a district of critical planning concern (DCPC) divided town officials, neighbors and even some families. Evident in the lengthy testimony and large amount of correspondence sent to the commission, the critical district nomination struck a chord with people across the Island on both sides of the issue.
Supporters saw the proposal as a clever way to protect the scale and character of small Vineyard neighborhoods that are slowly being turned into trophy suburbs, while opponents called it an inappropriate end run to halt unwanted development. As designated special places, DCPCs allow towns - through the enabling legislation of the commission - to adopt zoning regulations that would otherwise be unenforceable under state law.
During consideration of the Mullen Way nomination, commission members discussed creating an umbrella DCPC that would include other small neighborhoods that warranted special protection. The Islandwide neighborhood district curried favor with a consensus of commission members, who were nonetheless reluctant to make Mullen Way - by most accounts a charming yet forgotten dead-end road off Pease's Point Way - the cornerstone of such a progressive planning concept.
"The problem with this is that you have raised a very important issue, but not the right way of going about it," MVC member Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark said to the Mullen Way residents who initiated the nomination.
"Standing alone, little old Mullen Way is not of critical concern," he continued. "If you look at it with other neighborhoods and think about the fabric of the Vineyard, then it is. But we don't have those [other neighborhoods] before us yet."
Commission member James Athearn of Edgartown suggested that because each neighborhood is unique, the commission might have to develop guidelines and regulations for them on an individual basis. He also said the issue was too important to put off much longer. As chairman of the Island Plan steering committee, he has heard widespread concerns about the growing trend of old Vineyard homes being torn down and replaced with larger buildings.
"I am reminded of the common human failing whereby people say: ‘This is important work to do, but there is good reason not to do it today,'" said Mr. Athearn, a farmer. "If we stop the [building] clock today, we might be putting one good foot forward."
By deciding not to designate the DCPC last week, the commission lifted a month-long building moratorium that took effect in late July, when it first accepted the Mullen Way nomination. After turning down the nomination on Thursday, the commission voted unanimously to form a work group on the possible Islandwide neighborhood district, but a few commission members expressed concern about what would happen to Mullen Way in the meantime.
Mullen Way resident and commercial fisherman Robert Coad, who spearheaded the nomination, said yesterday that the neighborhood group would now wait to see what the subdivision developers intend to do with their eight-acre property. Landowner Michael Kidder said he plans to work with the neighbors and town boards to come up with a mutually agreeable solution.
"I want to do something that works for the Island and for Edgartown," said Mr. Kidder, a Chappaquiddick resident who purchased the Mullen Way property for $6 million, more than three times its assessed value. "I'm not into high density anything, or making a large profit."
Mr. Kidder withdrew the last version of his eight-lot subdivision in July after the Edgartown planning board referred it to the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). The planning board, selectmen and Edgartown police chief all expressed concerns about the safety impacts the subdivision posed for the narrow road, prompting one of the central questions of the critical district nomination: whether the existing zoning regulations were adequate to protect Mullen Way. Also at issue was whether Mullen Way represented or included any regionally significant resources in need of special protection.
Described by some as a time capsule of a past era on the Vineyard, Mullen Way is made up of mostly small bungalows and Capes built in the first half of the 20th century, as well as an old transported farmhouse that might be the second-oldest home in Edgartown. A number of longtime Island residents sent letters asking the MVC to protect what they said reminded them of what the Vineyard used to be, while others testified at the hearing that Mullen Way was not unique and did not merit special designation.
Edgartown planning board chairman Alan Wilson called the nomination inappropriate and said that Mullen Way did not rise to the significance of other DCPCs in town, while his fellow board member Roger Becker weighed in otherwise. Though admittedly still up in the air, Mr. Becker said the arguments supporting the neighborhood district were quite compelling. He noted that the planning board, acting under the state subdivision control law without a DCPC, did not have the ability to address the size of the proposed homes, the width of the public way, or the historical integrity of the architectural styles.
"If the commission wants to protect those things, they need to step up and help the planning board address them. This could be the way to keep our neighborhoods from being cleared out by people who have too much money," Mr. Becker said, adding:
"If people are willing to buckle themselves under these regulations, limit the size of their homes, and the neighborhood is for it, how can the commission not back them up?"
Mullen Way property owners appeared to be split roughly right down the middle, with at least six homeowners in favor of the district, and others staunchly opposed. Allen W. Norton wrote a letter in support of the district, while his daughter, Melissa Norton Vincent, testified against it. One neighbor said the issue was dividing decades-old friendships.
Longtime Mullen Way resident Thomas Teller, who opposed the district, also questioned the working definition of the word neighborhood.
"When I moved to Mullen Way more than 50 years ago, every single house was occupied by year-round residents. Today, only five are occupied year-round," Mr. Teller said. "Neighborhoods are made up of people; they're not made up of houses."
The MVC received a substantial amount of correspondence from Vineyard friends and business associates of Mr. Kidder, praising his dedication to sound land-use decisions. But commission chairman Linda Sibley of West Tisbury at the hearing did not allow any discussion about either his character, or that of Island attorney Ronald Monterosso, who presented the Mullen Way nomination to the commission but was also one of the loudest opponents of the proposed Chappaquiddick DCPC more than four years ago.
Some commission members took the long view, saying Thursday they did not think the neighborhood district, if it were to begin with Mullen Way, would receive the necessary two-thirds approval at an Edgartown town meeting. Voters in Edgartown have a history of rejecting DCPC regulations - at one point leading to the town's temporary withdrawal from the commission.
Mrs. Sibley said she was nearly brought to tears by one letter in favor of the neighborhood district - written by a longtime resident lamenting the changes he had seen on the Island, and asking the commission to protect Mullen Way from a similar fate - but added a note of caution.
"Doing it wrong could be a terrible catastrophe. I don't think this will get two-thirds [of Edgartown voters], and I fear that would set us back tremendously," Mrs. Sibley said, suggesting that the commission first develop the criteria for neighborhoods to be included in the district. "If we do it that way, I think we would come up with a greater chance of success."