Edgartown Planning Board Faces Dilemma on Size of Mansions


The Edgartown planning board is torn.

The fracture - slow yet certain - led to a tense clash last week.

Only one item appeared on the board's agenda - a project that has inched toward a vote since Richard Schifter filed his intentions with the board last spring.

The planning board, granted special permitting authority under the Cape Pogue district of critical planning concern (DCPC) in 1988, must now decide whether to approve the Washington D.C.-based businessman's request to build a 10,000-square-foot family retreat on Chappaquiddick's exposed southeasternmost tip.

Mr. Schifter, earnest and direct in every appearance in front of the board, adapted the house plan to meet all of the planning board's, as well as a special DCPC site review committee's, suggestions throughout the public hearing process. Every request, that is, except a reduction in square footage.

"That's the only thing against this project. He doesn't get it. He's a nice guy, and I think he'll fit in over [on Chappaquiddick]. But he's building a starter castle, and he's doing it in the wrong place," said planning board member Kenneth Southworth last Thursday afternoon.

The second-floor conference room in the Edgartown town hall was nearly empty during the special meeting. Only Mr. Schifter's contractor, Chappaquiddick resident Richard Knight, sat before the board. Despite the small group, even smaller in the absence of board member Alan Wilson, voices were a little louder than usual. Tempers flared a few times, and frustrations remained just below the surface throughout the hour-long discussion.

"Thank goodness we can't determine the size of someone's house. What right do we have to say what neighborhoods have what size houses? His family's close. Grandkids will be coming one day. They want a place to gather. That's the American way," said planning board member Michael Donaroma.

"No, Michael, that's the American dream. It doesn't always work out that way," countered planning board member Alison Cannon.

One application, one house, one family sat before them. But the planning board knew the stakes were much higher.

The town has been at a crossroads for quite some time. Articles aimed at design footprint caps for houses pegged as starter castles appeared and disappeared from town warrants. Citizens have contemplated, discussed and debated the merits of size limits. None, however, have been adopted.

The Schifter project attracted a stern protest from hundreds of Chappaquiddick residents - and 546 Island residents who petitioned against the approval of the massive home - who argued that the 12-bedroom mansion had no place in their rural neighborhood.

"This neighborhood obviously

doesn't want it," Mrs. Cannon said last Thursday.

"No one wants anything in their backyard," Mr. Donaroma shot back.

Without knowing the will of the Edgartown voters at large, expressed through a vote at town meeting, two planning board members refused to ask Mr. Schifter to scale down.

"In five years, it's likely we'll have a bylaw. That's the animal we are. That's the climate we live in. You want to be the judge of your neighbor, tell us where to draw the line," said planning board chairman Norman Rankow, a builder who admits he is opposed to such limits.

The town's identity crisis rose to the surface at nearly every board meeting of late. Development pressures in Edgartown, in which 4,666 developable acres remain, come in the form of money. Large tracts of land attract seasonal residents dreaming of an estate, not a 1930s-style Island camp.

A thorough count of existing Edgartown homes and recent building permits confirms what many have known instinctively for quite some time. Houses are getting bigger.

In the last two and a half years, four homes of over 9,000 square feet have gone up in Edgartown. The first and only house that large was previously built in Edgartown in the late 1990s.

Through the 1990s, 24 homes between 5,000 and 9,000 square feet joined Edgartown's housing stock. In the first two and a half years of this decade, 19 houses of that size, nearly as many as the entire decade before, went up in Edgartown.

The gap between 2,500 to 5,000-square-foot homes, as compared to those greater than 1,000 square feet but smaller than 2,500, has nearly disappeared. Since 2000, those two categories are nearly equal. In the 1970s and 1980s, the town's housing stock contained five times more of the modest-sized category.

Cozy primary dwellings are disappearing. Before 1960, the town had 144 homes of less than 1,000 square feet. In the 1970s and 1980s, 143 smaller homes joined Edgartown's count. In the 1990s, however, that number dropped to 15. Only eight have been constructed in the last two and a half years.

Massive homes, some argue while pointing to Main street and North and South Water streets, are the Edgartown trademark - the lingering reminders of the town's whaling heritage.

But the newest mansions, others counter while driving through Boldwater or down Katama Road, echo nothing of the whaling age. Those houses, as one member of the planning board suggested last week, belong in the Hamptons on Long Island.

The looming identity questions do nothing to ease the pressure weighing on the planning board this fall. Another read through the Cape Pogue DCPC regulations, designed to protect the fragile ecology along Chappaquiddick's edges, offered no clarity to the board. Some officials argue the board has the power to deny the project entirely, while others fear they would subject the town to a costly lawsuit.

Facing an obvious impasse, the board postponed the project vote, waiting both for an extra board member and for Mr. Schifter's presence at a meeting in November.

Clarity, the board hopes, will come soon - not soon enough, however, to guide them in a vote on the 10,000-square-foot home planned for Chappaquiddick's Wasque Point.