Big Houses, Again

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
denying
her wounds   came   from the same source as her power

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Big Houses, Again

  1. Juleann says:

    I don’t know the historical facts on this . . . however, sometime in the 70’s banks and building codes began requiring all residential structures be built for year-round occupancy. That was the beginning of the end for seasonal communities. Cabins and camps — even large ones — didn’t have the same impact when they weren’t insulated. Many of the large houses on the Chops and in the campground contribute toward Vineyard character, particularly the ones built before mandatory insulation & plumbing.

    All very large seasonal homes have a regional impact on the need for affordable housing. The owners of these structures have a higher than normal need for service industry folks — cleaning, cooking, yard work, etc. They proportionally boost the need for additional summer workers — not year-round employment. They have a complex economic impact that goes far beyond just the initial flush of support the building trades.

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    • That’s true about the complex economic impact, but I wonder if the impact of the big (or really big) houses can be usefully separated from the impact of the second-home market in general, or the whole seasonal economy for that matter. It’s all about service jobs and seasonal jobs. Work three jobs in the summer to make up for the months you won’t be working in the off-season.

      As I see it, the need for affordable housing stems primarily from rising property values. The values are pushed upward by people, both seasonal residents and year-rounders, who buy island property with off-island incomes (including trust funds). The disconnect between island incomes — even good, year-round island incomes — and real estate prices is formidable. Many longtime property owners have benefited from the rising property values, providing they can pay the taxes — but often their kids can only afford to live here if they get a youth lot or something similar.

      As in the poem, our wounds come from the same source as our power: the seasonal economy is killing Martha’s Vineyard (“the character of the island”), but we can’t live without it.

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  2. Anda Divine says:

    My self-designed, self-built passive solar log home is 750 SF plus a full unfinished basement–my workshop/art studio. This represents my fourth and final deliberate downsizing over the past 25 years; each slimmed-down space made me happier and this one is the best of all.

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    • I grew up in a house designed by my father the architect. Don’t know the square footage, but it was compact. Each of us four kids had her/his own bedroom, but the bedrooms were small, big enough to sleep and study in but that’s about it. His idea was that the inhabitants hang out in the common spaces, not isolate in their bedrooms — and spend time outside in the wider world. Family was, ahem, dysfunctional (depressed and alcoholic mother, etc.), so we all spent much more time in the wider world than he intended and we’ve been pretty entropic all along, but I still like the underlying philoseophy.

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