After five years of lawsuits, appeals and bitter contention, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to approve a plan for an addition to the Oak Bluffs home of Joseph Moujabber, closing at least one chapter in the prolonged saga over the three-storey garage built without a permit back in 2003.
The approved plan among other things calls for the garage — dubbed garage mahal by critics — to be torn down and replaced by a new addition on the rear of Mr. Moujabber’s existing home on Sea View avenue extension.
The plan still needs approval from the Oak Bluffs historical district and zoning board of appeals.
While several neighbors criticized the revised plans as being too large and out of scale with the North Bluff neighborhood, some saw Thursday’s vote as a step in the right direction.
“I still think it’s too big, but this [vote tonight] was okay,” said Belleruth Naparstek, a direct abutter to the three-story garage and a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Mr. Moujabber. “The good thing is the garage will be torn down . . . the bad news is the neighborhood and town had to go through this at all. But I think the commission pushed this in the right direction tonight.”
The story behind the Moujabber garage is now familiar around the Island. In November of 2003 Mr. Moujabber received a town building permit to replace an existing small garage on his Sea View avenue extension property. 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 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 a fresh 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 intervened 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).
Commissioners on Thursday spent almost an hour debating the benefits and detriments of the revised plan. Against the backdrop of an earlier discussion about whether scenic views and the character of the neighborhood would be affected, the commission debated whether the existing three-story garage should even play a part in their deliberations.
Some commissioners argued the existing structure should not be a factor and said that the commission should consider the application simply as an addition to an existing home. But other commissioners said it was impossible for the removal of the three-story garage not to play a part in the decision.
“It doesn’t make sense to ignore the reality that there is a very ugly structure behind that building . . . the removal of such a preeminent and gigantic structure along the North Bluff must be considered,” commissioner Linda Sibley said.
The commission found itself in a gray area when debating the merits of a building constructed without a permit versus what is being proposed. While they agreed the proposal was an improvement over what has already been built, they said the fact that the garage has already been built has limited their options.
“We say that this is a smaller project than [what has been built], but it is smaller in terms of what?” asked commissioner Christina Brown.
“It is smaller than what is there now,” answered Mr. Sederholm.
“But it is larger than what was there before,” noted commission executive director Mark London.
Conditions for the project include a requirement that construction and demolition activity take place between Columbus Day weekend and April 30, which means the existing garage will remain intact through the summer. Conditions also prohibit the building from being used for employee housing and require that the lowest level of the addition be used only as a garage.
In the end the commission voted 9-0 to approve the modified plan. Commissioners Jim Powell, John Breckenridge, James Athearn, Susan Shea, Mimi Davission, Chris Murphy, Mr. Sederholm, Ms. Sibley, and Ms. Brown all voted yes.
In the moments following the vote, North Bluff resident Bill Anderson offered a pointed evaluation of the commission’s decision after watching five years of legal challenges, debate and hard feelings.
“We won . . . but at the same time we lost. Somehow we still lost,” he said.