Big Houses are on the agenda again. For a good account of the issues and various perspectives on them, see the Vineyard Gazette‘s November 21 story “Commission’s Role in Big Houses Debated.” The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) is considering revisions to its DRI (development of regional impact) checklist. Those are the guidelines that could prompt referral of a development to the MVC for review. Never mind that for five, six, or eight years it didn’t occur to the MVC that the roundabout proposed for the blinker intersection might be a DRI.
On the other hand, do mind it. It’s useful background to the discussion. Speaking of useful background, I blogged about “Monster Houses” last December. What I wrote then still holds.
I don’t care for Big Houses, unless they’re intended to be year-round homes to large extended families, which is never the case on Martha’s Vineyard. These houses are intended to be occupied by a few people for two weeks or two months in the summer. These people already have at least one home — and more likely two or three or five “homes” — somewhere else.
When I look at these Big Houses, and even plenty of not-so-big-houses, I think that those people must not like each other very much if they want to be so far away from each other when they’re under the same roof. I think they must be very insecure to need to stick it to the landscape like that. I know that they have gobs and gobs of money, but I don’t want to know too much about how they got it because it’s probably pretty ugly.
In other words, I think these people need therapy or a 12-step program or maybe just a little perspective more than they need a Big House. This, however, does not make their Big House a DRI. The same could be said of many Vineyarders who live in small houses. They, or should I say “we,” are the character of the island that everyone’s always yammering about.
“The character of the island” is a shifty concept. It means different things to different people, but many people act as if it means the same thing to everybody. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like “God.” On relatively secular Martha’s Vineyard, maybe it is God. Save that thought; I’ll probably come back to it in a later blog.
For now let’s just say that an appeal to “the character of the island” isn’t going to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. When the Vineyard Gazette interviewed me for its pre-election candidate profiles, I said that large houses should be reviewed if they have environmental impacts, but only at the town level: “At the moment I can’t imagine that a big house in any one town can really have a regional impact, which is what the commission should be focused on.”
I still agree with myself on that one.
Among the most strenuous opponents of more Big House regulation are people in the building trades. This is not surprising. The economy and the price of land being what they are, the very wealthy account for a significant portion of the builders’ business, and the very wealthy, it seems, rarely yearn for modest bungalows.
The island economy is yoked to tourism and the second-home market. Discouraging Big Houses, so the reasoning goes, hurts the island economy. I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips, but I believe this. More particularly, it hurts Vineyarders who make their livings working on Martha’s Vineyard. Many supporters of conservation groups do not fall into this category. This goes a long way toward explaining why the conservation groups are much more enthusiastic about Big House regulation than the building-tradesfolk, and also why many people who work here are not wild-eyed supporters of the conservation groups.
There is, however, a deeper truth in all this. We rarely talk about it. Adrienne Rich nailed it in her 1974 poem “Power.” She’s writing about Marie Curie, whose pioneering work in radioactivity won her two Nobel Prizes — and killed her in the end.
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power