23 Aug 2014
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The Sneaky Building Society

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

The Sneaky Building Society

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. 

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