The house “looks like it should be in Los Angeles,” Historic District Commission chair Ray Pohl said of the large home under construction on Kendrick Street in Tom Nevers.
“It’s a wall of glass,” Pohl lamented at a recent commission meeting following formal complaints from neighbors. “This should be on State Street in Boston, not on Nantucket.”
And yet, the 3,000 square-foot, five-bedroom home had already been fully approved by the Historic District Commission (HDC).
While the elected members of the HDC had expressed concerns about the proposed structure when they first reviewed the plans in 2021 - calling it “frightening” and a “commercial structure” - it ultimately earned the commission’s approval after assurances from the architect that most of it would not be visible from a public way, and thus not under the HDC’s purview. Nearly a year later, a series of revisions to the plans were subsequently rubber-stamped by the commission as they were put on the HDC’s consent agenda by staff - again under the assumption that it was not visible from a public way - and not fully reviewed by the members.
The house is owned by Bob and Jeanette Leaf, of Florida, and it was designed by island architect Chip Webster.
As construction proceeded during the summer and fall of 2022, neighbors and nearby property owners took note, and ultimately filed complaints. And when Bill Saad, a land use specialist with the town, went out to Kendrick Street to respond to those complaints, he quickly noticed that the new structure was very much visible from Lancashire Avenue, an abutters way that is considered a paper road and used primarily as a walking trail along the edge of the westernmost properties in Tom Nevers. The photos and video he took alarmed the HDC members.
While it is not a public way, the HDC has jurisdiction because Lancashire Avenue is a way shown on a Land Court plan, according to Nantucket Planning and Land Use (PLUS) director Andrew Vorce.
“Your choice to insist that this would not be seen when we had grave reservations really bothers me greatly,” HDC member Val Oliver said to Webster during a recent meeting. “To come back with the very changes we asked for in order to approve - one at a time - when the HDC is stretched so thin to its very limits, I surmise went through on consent because the person reviewing the application saw that this house was designated as ‘not visible.’ It’s not a very honest maneuver. You knew visibility was a key issue and you chose to do what your clients wanted anyway instead of steering them to doing what’s right for Nantucket. I myself am not going to be able to trust lack of visibility ever again to approve something on consent and not in keeping with Nantucket. This is so gravely not Nantucket and so large, I don't even know how it can be mitigated. I’m disappointed that the applicants chose to do something that won't fit into the spirit of Nantucket’s architectural language to fulfill their own ambitions.”
Another HDC member, vice chair Abby Camp, questioned the plans that were submitted to the board by Chip Webster Architecture, suggesting they may have understated the appearance of the windows.
“It looks like the drawing of these windows is - I’m trying to look for a better word than half-assed - but it’s not accurate,” Camp said at the HDC’s Sept. 13 meeting. “The windows are not drawn in strongly. It’s almost like somebody cut and pasted them on. It just looks like - it doesn’t look like it was professionally drawn. It looks like a fudgy job. No one sat and did this on the drawing board, it was done free-hand, on the lunch table on a napkin. This doesn't look professional.”
Webster, who participated in the September meeting remotely via Zoom, said the plans were completed in the same program he always uses.
“We did not in any way try to manipulate the drawing,” Webster said. “They’re all done in the same program. The windows at the bottom are double- hung, which are operable, which is why there’s more lines on them. These are accurate representations of those products.”
Reached by phone this week, Webster said his clients were willing to add additional vegetation to screen the home from Lancashire Avenue even though the paper road was “completely overgrown” and probably unused.
“I’m working with them and working towards a solution,” Webster said. “The client, although I don’t think he’s legally bound to, has offered to put in additional landscaping at his cost. The paper road, there’s no reason anyone would ever use it. It’s a completely overgrown path. Unless you know it’s there, you wouldn’t see it.”
Webster added “I’ve been out here full-time practicing for over 30 years. I’ve worked closely with them (the HDC) for 30 years and I hope there’s another 30 still in the pipeline. I respect everything the board does.”
The property was on the HDC’s agenda for an enforcement action this week, when the commissioners again discussed a proposed plan for additional vegetative screening.
But the previous debate back in September included a number of comments from the HDC members on the practice of applicants telling the commission that a property is not visible from a public way, and whether the HDC should simply accept those assertions or attempt to independently verify them despite a heavy workload of applications.
“Clearly the reason I brought this up is the whole idea of applicants coming in and saying ‘this won’t be visible from a public way’ and we take it on faith,” Pohl said. “And in large part we do that because we have such a heavy agenda and that doesn’t seem to be getting any shorter. If we have to go out and research every application that we have in front of us, we’d be here until the cows come home.”
Pohl and others invoked former HDC member John McLaughlin’s mantra that “everything is visible” on Nantucket, and thus should require some level of review by the board. Commission member Stephen Welch even suggested that the HDC could require that applicants sign their submissions under the penalty of perjury.
"A quick look at the GIS confirms that the road (Lancashire) IS there, just not constructed," Vorce said. "I find it hard to believe the architect didn't realize this but perhaps that's how it looks from the site. Permitting boards can occasionally make a mistake and then, once determined, is corrected. Our staff worked to document that the structure was visible despite the earlier representations."
But for former Nantucket Historical Commission chair Hillary Rayport, the situation at 43 Kendrick is illustrative of a larger problem at the HDC: too much work and not enough staff. She also chided Webster for leaving out Lancashire Avenue in the plans submitted to the commission.
“The HDC only regulates what is visible from a public street, public path, or beach,” Rayport said. “If you want to build a copy of Le Petit Trianon and it is only visible from other people’s backyards, the HDC cannot stop you. Chip’s design would have been fine if indeed Lancashire Ave did not exist. The problem is that the owner directly, or through their agent, appears to intentionally mislead the HDC about where the public ways were around the house. The HDC believed the rear of the house was not visible and so they did not review it. The HDC compliance coordinator should have independently verified the application on the map and asked questions. But there have been four HDC coordinators in five years. The Nantucket Historic District is huge and the compliance staff is always new and easily misled by highly motivated and experienced agents who’ve learned it is better to ask forgiveness than permission. It degrades confidence in government and it’s not fair.”
Correction: the initial version of the story referred to Lancashire Avenue as a public way, when it is in fact an abutters way. While the HDC still has jurisdiction due to the fact it is a way shown on a Land Court plan, we incorrectly referred to it as a public way, and regret our error.