The Oak Bluffs historical commission on Wednesday responded to allegations that a cottage in the federally protected Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association may have been torn down and partially expanded earlier this summer, possibly in violation of a town bylaw strictly regulating the demolition of historical structures.
Members of the historical commission — which administers the town’s demolition delay bylaw — voted 4-0 to send a certified letter to the owners of the cottage at 5 Pease avenue asking that they cease all construction on the two-story building indefinitely.
The commission agreed to send similar letters to Oak Bluffs building inspector Jerry Wiener and the Camp Meeting Association, which issued a cease and desist order of their own for the cottage in late June after a neighbor complained unauthorized work was being done and a portion of the cottage had already been demolished.
“Hearing about this shocked me, really, I had no idea this was going on,” said historical commission member David Wilson. “Somebody should have been communicating with us.”
Officials from the Camp Meeting Association confirmed earlier this month they issued a cease and desist order for construction at the cottage owned by seasonal resident Deborah Harmon, who is listed with an address in Ashburnham in the town assessor’s office. Ms. Harmon is the only owner listed in town records.
The cottage was built in 1870, town records indicate, and along with the rest of the Camp Ground is federally protected. In April of 2005, the grounds and buildings in the Camp Ground were designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior.
Two Camp Ground committees — the architectural review committee and building and grounds committee — are now reviewing the situation and working with the Harmon family towards a resolution.
Mr. Wilson said on Wednesday that he was contacted earlier this summer by Camp Ground resident Brian Fitzpatrick, who told him that extensive work was being done to the Harmon cottage. Mr. Wilson said he then visited the cottage and saw that it has been partially demolished and the footprint appeared to be expanded.
Mr. Wilson said Mr. Fitzpatrick told him he reported the questionable construction work to Camp Meeting officials. Bob Clermont, general manager and executive director of the association, then visited the site on June 26 and told the workers to stop all work, according to Mr. Fitzpatrick.
Mr. Fitzpatrick told Mr. Wilson that workers continued to work after Mr. Clermont left the site.
Commission member Priscilla Sylvia questioned why work was being done in late June when all construction in the Camp Ground is prohibited in July and August.
“I am amazed they would even try and fix something in [late June],” she said.
Mr. Wilson said he checked the records at the Camp Meeting association and found a historical survey form indicating the Harmon cottage was built in 1916, which would exempt it from the town demolition delay bylaw, which only regulates buildings 100 years old or more.
But Mr. Wilson said there was ample evidence the building is over 100 years old; records on file in the town assessors office indicate the building was built in 1870, and at least one map dating back to 1880 shows a cottage on the same lot where the current cottage now stands.
Ms. Sylvia said the design of the cottage seems to indicate it dates back to the late 1800s.
“I have no doubt that [cottage] predates 1916,” she said.
Oak Bluffs has a demolition bylaw requiring a property owner to request a demolition permit from the building department contingent on approval from the historical commission. If the building inspector determines the structure is an imminent threat to public health or safety, he can authorize an emergency demolition and later provide a detailed written explanation about why the building needed to be torn down.
No written explanation was sent to the historical commission, town records show.
Mr. Wilson said he spoke with building inspector Jerry Wiener who told him a progressive demolition had occurred at the Harmon cottage, meaning that portions of the building were incrementally removed after workers uncovered rotted wood under the surface.
As the workers uncovered more rotted wood, they returned to the building inspector and asked permission to remove portions of the structure, which the building inspector approved, Mr. Wilson said.
“When it was all said and done the building was demolished,” he said.
Mr. Wilson also said it was not unusual to find rotted wood when renovating historical structures, and said the problem was fixable. “If [rotted wood] is grounds to take down a cottage, then every cottage in the Camp Ground is in peril,” he said.
Mr. Wilson acknowledged that Camp Meeting officials are now working on a resolution to the situation, but said the historical commission also has a process it must follow.
“The town has an interest in this project as well; voters passed a law to protect those buildings . . . the historical significance of those buildings goes beyond the Camp Ground,” he said.
The commission agreed to schedule a special meeting on Oct. 8 to discuss the matter further and decide what to do next.