Living Large

A look at the Island’s super-sized houses: past, present, and future.

They’ve been called mega-houses, McMansions, trophy houses, Hummer homes, and starter castles. They are houses of startling size, larger than the structures that preceded them or the ones that surround them in their neighborhoods. Architectural style and construction quality aside, it is the scale of these houses – rising up along the bluffs and well-traveled roads of the Vineyard – that elicits gasps.

Over the last decade, houses of a new magnitude have appeared with increasing frequency. “How many square feet do people need?” residents wonder. “They’re only here for a few weeks in the summer.” While Martha’s Vineyard hasn’t turned into the Hamptons, the Long Island summer resort known for its extravagance, the large-scale houses here have clearly been of concern to residents and visitors who value the Vineyard’s classic New England character.

Both Mark London, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, express unease on the subject of super-sized houses.

“We talked to thousands of people during the process of developing the Island Plan,” Mark says of the commission’s regional planning document, released in 2009 following years of research. “Ninety to 95 percent of them say that preserving the character of Martha’s Vineyard is high priority. The idea of McMansions came up in public forums and in survey results. It’s one of our residents’ significant concerns. They’re worried about the visual as well as environmental impacts of these large residences.”

Brendan echoes Mark’s observations, adding, “It’s a key focus of ours. We’ve been looking at ‘big house blight’ for several years. We have a tradition of primarily modest homes on the Island, and we have a great interest in trying to define what is appropriate scale for Martha’s Vineyard.”

The issue is a complicated one. Each town on the Island maintains its own zoning bylaws that dictate what individuals can build. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the regional land-use planning agency created in 1974 by an act of the Massachusetts legislature, works to help manage growth so that the Vineyard’s unique environment, character, social fabric, and sustainable economy are maintained as development takes place. And while the MVC is charged with reviewing commercial properties of more than 2,000 square feet, subdivisions of more than ten lots, and any residential development involving more than ten units, it rarely flexes its muscle when it comes to single-family homes.

“When the zoning regulations – setbacks and height restrictions – were created,” Mark explains, “no one ever thought that anyone would max out that volume. People would build homes similar to the ones that existed nearby. I think that the Island’s very high property values have encouraged people to max out their building sites. It’s an increasing tendency that leads to buildings that are far bigger than the neighbors’.”

The Island Plan is designed for use by the commission, the community, and the towns of the Vineyard to help chart a course toward a future envisioned and articulated by Island residents. According to Mark, the plan proposes the creation of a guidebook, “Building the Vineyard Way,” which would encourage residents, architects, and builders of new homes to consider the design and scale of construction in light of the surroundings.

“There is no ‘one size fits all,’” says Mark. “Should we have a blanket prohibition of large homes? I think that it depends on the individual situation.”

He proposes that the commission devise a long-term plan to perform a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis identifying the places where the visual impact is critical: along main rural roads, in older neighborhoods, along the shores of ponds, and on the coastline.

“A small fraction of the Island’s homes are very large,” he says. “All told, the hundreds of smaller and medium-size houses probably have more impact on our environment. But we’ve taken it for granted that the neighborhoods and open spaces we love will always be there. They’re being rapidly eroded. We should create ‘triggers,’ like square footage in a denser neighborhood, that might lead a property to greater scrutiny or review by a town or by the commission.”

Revisiting the zoning bylaws of each Island town would be an onerous task, but not an impossible one. According to Mark, other communities across the country have undertaken the process in order to combat uncontrolled growth. In the meantime however, Brendan offers what he calls an “incremental step.”

“Instead of pointing the finger, we can try to lead by example,” Brendan says. “We can try to draw attention in a positive way to those new properties that are in keeping with Vineyard values and context. New people come here all the time. They may be unaware of the prevailing sentiment. If we create more awareness about the environment or offer a road map about living on the Vineyard, we can lay out new choices for them.”

Many Vineyard residents are vocal in their objections to large-scale homes in visible locations, whether because of aesthetic considerations, land use, energy consumption, or infrequency of use. Judy Federowicz, owner of Coldwell Banker Landmarks Real Estate and a real estate professional for more than thirty years, has been a resident of the Island since 1981. With both her office and her home in downtown Vineyard Haven, Judy keeps in touch with the man-on-the-street concerns.

“We’ve had several new very large-scale homes go up on Main Street, both in town and on West Chop,” she says. “They were major departures from what was typical of Vineyard Haven. People would walk up to me in town and ask, ‘How did that happen?’”

While Judy’s firm has participated in the sale of large-scale houses and building lots that have been transformed into substantial estate properties, she is also deeply committed to historic preservation on the Island. Judy is acutely aware, she says, of how important diversity is here. “It’s what is so appealing about the Vineyard,” she says. “We have such a variety of people and architecture. We have to value both our heritage and our growth. That’s why planning is so important. We have to work together thoughtfully to preserve what we have but also to encourage considered growth.”

The mega-houses began to appear in earnest around the year 2000, she says. But even prior to the dot-com boom that fueled high-end construction on the Island, the late Boston-area car dealer Ernie Boch Sr. waged and won a zoning battle in Edgartown to construct his 11,000-square-foot manse on fifteen very visible acres fronting the town’s inner harbor. Replete with three kitchens, a rumored 245 windows, 85 skylights, and llamas grazing on the lawn, the Boch residence, completed in 1985, marked a turning point in Vineyard architecture. Once constructed, it opened the door to the possibility of other uber- houses that invoked the ire of their more conservative neighbors. From a proposed 15,600-square-foot compound on 81 acres on Edgartown’s Oyster Pond to a 10,000-square-foot residence overlooking Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick, examples of what appeared to be nothing but excess to many Island residents have dotted the past decade.

Then, in 2006, ground was broken on upper Main Street in Vineyard Haven for a 21,000-square-foot compound consisting of four structures, including a 12,000-square-foot main house, a 7,500-square-foot second house, an 800-square-foot guest house, and a pool house. Miami-based trial attorney James Ferraro’s estate was built on two lots overlooking a meadow owned by the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, with panoramic views of outer Vineyard Haven harbor. The West Chop property lacks grazing llamas but compensates with its tennis court, nine-hole putting green, half basketball court, and outdoor pool.

Jim Ferraro admits that even he was taken aback by the size of the main house as it was being built. “When it was just covered with insulating paper surrounded by dirt I was a little worried,” he says. “But I think that David Handlin, the architect, Clara Batchelor, the landscape architect, and Gary Maynard, the builder, did an amazing job of making the house blend with the surroundings. I haven’t heard a negative comment in over a year.”

The West Chop property is the second Jim has owned on the Island. He’s been coming to the Vineyard for more than thirty years and now spends four months a year here with his family. While the estate fills much of its two prominent lots, Jim feels strongly that it is an improvement over the former residence on the property or an alternative use. “That house was in disrepair and had scrubby brush,” he explains. “A builder had proposed constructing two or three houses on the site. I think what I did was far better.”

Gary Maynard, principal of Vineyard Haven’s Holmes Hole Builders, served as general contractor for the Ferraro compound. In the ten years since he began his company, Gary has earned a reputation for building some of the Island’s most prominent houses, from 3,000 square feet to what he terms “very large” structures. The size of projects like these, he admits, creates some internal conflict.

“I prefer to build homes that blend seamlessly into the landscape and are scaled to the environment,” he says. “But it’s my business to execute to my best abilities what someone else’s hopes and dreams have led them to design. What I think is beautiful and what someone else thinks are often two different things.”

While Gary says he has no problem with restrictive zoning, he also feels that the Island does have fairly good zoning in place, but inconsistent application. “It’s a complicated question,” he muses. “It’s not just about size, it’s also aesthetics. I don’t like the design of the new hospital or the ‘circus tent’ at the Steamship Authority in Vineyard Haven. When you approach the Island by boat, that’s what you see – that and the metal buildings at Maciel Marine. Should we also limit the size of the boats at the dock?”

Although he isn’t strictly opposed to limits on the size of houses, Gary suggests a more productive direction might be to adopt more stringent energy standards, which would force larger homes to have less of an environmental impact than they would otherwise.

Houses of great mass, he says, provide comfortable livelihoods for many Vineyarders. “My business enables highly skilled workers to afford to live here. Construction is the backbone of the Island. It’s the one industry we have that isn’t seasonal. When we depended on fishing, farming, and summer tourism, we were the poorest county in the state. The kind of house we get to build has helped to create one of the most skilled and well-paid work forces in the country right here on the Island.”

Gary also maintains that some of the largest houses are used more frequently than observers might think. “The idea that owners only come for a week or two in the summer is a stereotype,” he says. “The ones I know are here for two-and-a-half to three months.”

Kevin Cusack, owner of Autumn Construction for the past twenty-four years, has built homes up to 9,000 square feet in size. He credits the large custom homes he has built with giving him and his crew a comfortable standard of living on the Vineyard. “You can’t bite the hand that feeds you,” the Edgartown- based builder says. “These homes translate into tax dollars and an ongoing need for services from landscapers, painters, carpenters, and pool maintenance workers. Without them, guys that work for me couldn’t have put their kids through college. In a world that builds fast, cheap, and disposable houses, the homes we build create a big economy for the middle class and enhance the level of artisan skill on the Island.”

Houses of great visual impact are few and far between, he says. “The economy controls and dictates size. People are feeling the pain at the moment.” He vehemently opposes what he considers “over-regulating” residential construction, citing Oak Bluffs as an example of a town in which the regulatory process “has gone awry at the expense of the working man.” He asserts, “It’s now a huge process and expense for the simplest improvements to your house in Oak Bluffs.”

Rather than adding more regulation, Bruce MacNelly, principal of MacNelly Cohen Architects of West Tisbury, suggests designing large homes more thoughtfully. “There are ways to reduce overwhelming visual sprawl,” he says. “You can break the design into smaller pieces, use a less fussy roof line, and work with the topography of the site.”

As for imposing aesthetic restrictions, including scale, Bruce believes it’s unreasonable to expect people who pay several million dollars for a lot to build a small house. “It comes down to the intelligence of the people doing the designing and building,” he says. “We do better at articulating the character of the Vineyard and at describing it in detail. The zoning overlays, Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Land Bank, and other conservation organizations are doing a really good job. Nantucket has rigorous Island-wide architectural standards and they’re taking away design elements that lend character.”

John Abrams, co-founder and president of South Mountain Company of West Tisbury, has been in the business of designing and building environmentally friendly houses since 1975, before it became au courant. South Mountain, he says, has built many smaller-scale homes and up to 7,500 square feet in a family compound on one hundred acres.

Though he views large-scale homes (anything greater than 4,000 to 5,000 square feet, in his eyes) as “absolutely a source of good work for many people on the Island,” he says there is a trend toward smaller houses and a need to try to regulate large ones. “I don’t see the very large-scale homes as so common on the Vineyard,” he says. “There are many wealthy and not-so-wealthy people who are building smaller, higher quality, more energy-efficient houses, as well as people choosing to do renovations to existing homes.”

About the super-sized structures, John says: “I think they’re incredibly complicated to regulate, but it’s important to try. There should be limits to what you can build on a smaller property. It’s essential that the scale of what we’re doing fits our environment.”

Though Jim Ferraro’s approach to building on the Vineyard has come under criticism from some quarters, he says, “I definitely think you want to preserve the character of the Island. You need some requirements, but I would have built my home here no matter how stringent the regulations.”

Regardless of how development and land-use planning experts feel about mega-houses, they are in agreement that the recent recession has led to a voluntary moratorium. “Building has definitely slowed down in every sector on the Island,” observes Judy Federowicz. “It’s not just economic though. I think that people are developing more of a consciousness about building green and are getting somewhat turned off by the really sprawling houses. I have to ask myself, ‘Who is that buyer in the future? How long will it take to sell these properties?’ I think the next generation has witnessed a form of consumption that they don’t find very attractive.”

Attractive or not, the proliferation of large-scale houses on Martha’s Vineyard prompts John Abrams to suggest, “It’s worthwhile to look at how we can create the future we want, rather than being handed the future that comes.”

Gary Maynard articulates some of the questions that go to the heart of the issue. “It’s very difficult to limit size or to control aesthetics without a real fight that involves a landowner’s basic rights,” he says. “The question is really whether large homes have a net negative impact on the community, and what can be done to mitigate that impact. The first step in mitigation is to define exactly what is objectionable: Is it an aesthetic problem? Is it environmental impact? Is it cultural impact? These are all important issues that have very complex roots, legal and social ramifications, and some very personal answers.”