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The Sneaky Building Society

The biggest infraction since Laurie David had a path erected over wetlands.

Permits? Who needs permits? Go ahead and build it in the woods or build it in plain sight or build it on top of the Mansion House when Sherm and Susie Goldstein are out of town. If you’re discovered, you could face penalties like having to tear the whole edifice down, or . . . if you’ve known the building inspector since the second grade and you just shared a blueberry and strawberry pancakes breakfast at Linda Jean's, well, that French chateau mansard roof you just slapped over your beach shack? Hmm, as long as it’s not over 827 feet tall, fine and dandy.

When Marty and Charlie and I moved year-round in ’91 to our house in East Chop, the front door and the kitchen door opened onto a winter wind called the Canadian Express that shrieked across Vineyard Sound. It lifted you off your feet, froze you to the porch roof, and within minutes you were changed like a character out of a Grimm’s fairytale into a stalactite. So we decided to change one of our south-facing windows into a door that would allow us to dash some 15 relatively warm and protected feet to our car.

Our carpenter asked the local building inspector to sign off on it. He decreed that we would need to take the issue to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. For a door! The next thing we knew, he allowed a buddy on the harbor to construct a storage space over his snack bar. Then, abracadabra—the storage area morphed into a lavish-sized restaurant with an outdoor bar and a patio that could house the full troop of the Rockettes doing the can-can. Of course, none of this improvised architecture contained a catastrophically dangerous south-facing door.

Oops, let’s not be bitter. New Englanders in general and islanders specifically are fiercely independent, meaning we don’t like red-tape types telling us we can’t add a sun porch without the ZBA and the MVC and the KBG showing up with clipboards. I’m willing to bet most of us have snuck in a shower stall to turn a half bath into a full, or transformed one big rec area into two small bedrooms, or taken a basement that ideally could be used for raising pot and poppies under special grow lights, and instead installed a rental space with enough room to house a family of 30.

But as much as we love to do what we want to do for ourselves, we resent other people over-building if they’re blocking our views or changing the character of an historic Arts & Crafts neighborhood.

Which brings us to the greatest transgression of them all—not counting Laurie David’s footpath over their wetlands. (Now that was shocking! Why couldn’t they squelch their Crocs through the muck like everyone else?)

Let me put this in as much of a nutshell as is humanly possible: Down on Seaview Avenue facing the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal, a guy with a small house requested a permit to rebuild his 200-square-foot garage. I don’t know where these overnight builders come from, but overnight a three-story building sprang up with multiple balconies, sliding glass doors and a roof deck. One look at these sterile apartments – there seemed to be at least four of them – and you thought Daytona Beach, Ventura County. They were the type of modern, ugly apartments you’d prefer to live in rather than having to look at them from another location.

Neighbors cried “foul!” and “what happened to our view?” Town officials were suicidal; the building inspector may have considered entering protective custody; and abutters were prepared to secede from the Union. There were court battles, demolition orders, appeals, letters to the editor of the acrimonious stripe, and finally a deal was struck: The owner would tear down the garage in exchange for adding a 1,589 square-foot addition to the rear of his house, nearly doubling its size, giving him and his family a larger kitchen, dormers galore and five more bedrooms. Oh, and a schematic for a 6-foot tower was proposed to grace the rooftop.

The tower must have been bunted in exchange for the rest of the stuff. Nowadays, when you drive past the house between Pasque Ave. and North Bluff Rd., it fits it with the other houses along that stretch—none too shabby, any of them. And it’s a blessed relief to have those garage-top apartments gone. 

I did notice there were no south-facing doors, so presumably this family has to brace themselves for the Canadian Express just like the rest of us poor schmos. 

John Eide June 27, 2011 at 10:05 PM
Love the cartoon! Kudos to the artist.
Holly Nadler June 27, 2011 at 11:49 PM
The artist is C.K. Wolfson. I also called her up this morning to tell her how much I loved the illustration. I think it would look great in color as a painting.
Susan June 28, 2011 at 03:00 PM
You have, once again, my friend, hit the nail on the head.
Betty Burton June 28, 2011 at 03:07 PM
You certainly did hit it. As far as new buildings going up, I don't know of any, but I guess I don't want to know either. The ones I know about have already been built. Now I could rant about that for hours. Devil's amphitheater gone in one big package including beaches and a house built to excess (can you say extreme excess?).
Donald Muckerheide June 28, 2011 at 03:10 PM
Check out the Red Mannequin who lost two parking spaces because the permit was applied for as a residence. Also no handicapped access. But everything is cool because they park over at the Bradley Square property. Don
David Whitmon June 28, 2011 at 03:17 PM
So Holly, what was the rational for no allowing you to have the south facing door? As for myself, no outlandish building here though my little two story salt box ( a bit bigger than the above mentioned addition) on a half acre lot is oriented to the south for the passive solar gain. When we were looking into buying the lot 18 years ago the bank and property owner was none to happy that the back side of my house would be towards the paved road. It was a buyers market back then so when I threatened to go else where, they said OK. So the anti social kind of guy that I am, the back of my house does indeed face the road. You can barely see the house from the road with our 170' twisty drive way. The south side on the other hand faces undeveloped conservation land. All I can see is sunshine and woods......(-;
Michael West June 28, 2011 at 03:45 PM
Brilliant, Holly, and about time someone raised the issue. Right now it makes no sense to apply for a building permit, as the excesses you've highlighted are allowed to pass. "Never ask permission; beg forgiveness" used to be the mantra. Seems like it has evolved into, "Get away with whatever you can, and then negotiate the the rest."
Charlie Nadler June 28, 2011 at 10:53 PM
A south facing door would have made my childhood a lot better. Sending therapy bills your way!
Holly Nadler June 29, 2011 at 12:02 AM
Didn't you know we started a therapy fund right after you were born? Unfortunately we spent it all on Room Service!
Holly Nadler June 29, 2011 at 12:09 AM
David, the south part wasn't the main concern (except to keep frost-bite at bay!) but the building inspector said anything built on or near the shore had to be run past the MV Commission. However, since a whole house had sat on that lot for 125 years (it used to belong to the toll-taker for the New York ferry line), I can't see how a window changed to a door would have collapsed the whole thing. Your sunshine and woods sounds lovely!
Trina Mascott June 29, 2011 at 03:19 AM
Count me in as another admirer of Cynthia W's illustrations. Out here in the desert--temp only 106 today (it was 114 last week), we don't allow any buildings on our lovely hilltops, but a couple of years ago a man who considers himself too rich for rules built a huge sports arena smack on the hill's crest above his enormous mansion. Huge legal battles ensued, but as I recall, he managed to get an exception made for him. So your wonderful island isn't the only place where people break the rules when it comes to building. Trina Mascott
Carolyn O'Daly June 29, 2011 at 03:20 PM
Happens in Edgartown all the time. Seems to me I read about someone who had some kind of historical shed or something on his property and was told he wouldn't get permission to tear it down so he didn't ask--just went ahead and did it and paid the fine! I guess it really is who you know!

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