The prolonged saga of the three-story garage built without a permit in 2003 by Oak Bluffs resident Joseph Moujabber along the North Bluffs resumed last Thursday when the Martha’s Vineyard Commission opened a public hearing on revised plans for the building.
The revised plans call for the existing three-story garage — dubbed the garage mahal by critics — to be torn down and replaced by a new addition built onto the rear of the original home on Seaview avenue. After 90 minutes of emotional testimony both for and against the plan, the commission agreed to continue the public hearing until a future meeting.
The controversy dates back to November of 2003 when Mr. Moujabber received a town building permit to replace an existing 200-square-foot garage on his Sea View avenue extension property. The estimated cost of the replacement was $22,000. In less than six months the project grew into a three-story building with multiple balconies, sliding glass doors and a roof deck.
The violation sparked heated opposition throughout the neighborhood.
Under pressure from town officials and neighbors, building inspector Richard Mavro, who has since resigned, revoked the building permit for the garage in May 2004 and ordered the new building demolished. The decision was upheld by the town zoning board of appeals later that summer.
Mr. Moujabber since has filed several lawsuits against the town. Last August a Dukes County superior court judge overturned the demolition order and sent the garage project back to the Copeland District Review Committee, which has special powers vested in it by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, for another review. The Copeland board denied a certificate of appropriateness for the garage project in November of 2004.
The superior court decision is the subject of appeals on all sides — Mr. Moujabber appealed the decision, followed by cross appeals from both the town and a pair of neighbors who are intervenors in the case. Earlier this year, attorneys for Mr. Moujabber also filed a lawsuit against the commission challenging its right to review the garage project as a development of regional impact (DRI).
The review has nevertheless gone forward. Representatives for Mr. Moujabber last Thursday presented revised plans which call for the three-story garage to be torn down and a 1,589 square-foot addition to be built in the rear of the building along Pasque avenue. The proposed addition would nearly double the size of the main house.
The new building would have five bedrooms and a larger kitchen, as well as new dormers along the roof line and a single tower in the center rising about six feet above the rest of the building, a feature that drew repeated criticism during Thursday’s public hearing.
Architect Peter Pometti said the overall height of the new structure would be less than the existing garage. He showed several schematics of what the new structure would look like from different vantage points, including the Steamship Authority pier, and argued the new building was an improvement over what is there now.
“This structure is not as prominent, it does not stand out as much. If you are looking from [the Steamship Authority], the building recedes from view,” Mr. Pometti said.
But attorney Stephanie Keifer, who represents abutter Belleruth Naparstek, said the building is too large and radically out of scale with the neighborhood. “I don’t think the intent of the court was to have [Mr. Moujabber] propose a structure that subsumes the original [house],” she said.
Some said the new plan is an improvement and represents an opportunity to bring the long saga of lawsuits, appeals and bruised feelings on both sides to an end.
“I hear the name calling and the insults — like garage-mahal — and it offends me,” said Donald Gregory. “The way I hear it, the town made some mistakes along the way, too . . . I don’t think everyone should be so quick to blame [Mr. Moujabber],” he added.
“Let him bring this building together and put an end to this,” agreed Allan (Buddy) deBettencourt. “This has gone on long enough.”
Other neighbors, including several abutters, said the new plan creates a whole new set of questions and suggested that Mr. Moujabber was using the threat of litigation and the enticement of tearing down the existing structure to get what he wants.
“It feels like we are being held hostage here,” said one man who did not identify himself. “They are here telling us, ‘We’ll take this down, if you let us build what we want.’ ”
Abutter Jason Lew said: “We started with a structure that was built illegally, one that was supposed to be torn down. And now we’re talking about a gigantic structure that will dwarf the original [structure] . . . I don’t get it.”
Ms. Naparstek said the new building will alter the character of the neighborhood and send the wrong message.
“This is still a massive structure . . . one that does not fit in that neighborhood . . . the fact this garage has stood there for almost five years has hurt Island morale. Approving this won’t be good for the Island, and it certainly won’t be good for Oak Bluffs,” she said, adding:
“Remember we didn’t ask for this. We didn’t ask for the aggravation or the legal battles — but we have kept on fighting because we feel it is worth fighting for. Even when the town didn’t protect us, we felt it was worth protecting this town and this Island.”
Because a second public hearing on a different plan was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., the commission agreed to continue the public hearing until a future meeting. A date for the hearing has not been set yet.