The Summer House was embroiled in controversy last year and remained shut down for a significant chunk of the peak season due to violations of health and fire codes that led to failed inspections.
But eventually, the issues were sorted out and Summer House owner Danielle deBenedictis reopened the lodging and dining establishment in 'Sconset at the end of July, having reached an accord with the Nantucket Health Department.
This year, however, there appears to be more trouble brewing for The Summer House. A group of 25 of its neighbors known as the South Siasconset Neighborhood Association has sent a letter to various town departments outlining a host of concerns - some stretching back decades - about The Summer House and its operation.
Attorney Steven Cohen, who represents the association, researched and wrote the letter on behalf of the group. He alleges a series of zoning violations - including the operation of commercial uses in residential zones and some that exceed their pre-existing, non-conforming status - as well as expansion into areas that were not permitted, and the lack of a major commercial development permit, among others.
"...a review of public records and publicly available information suggests that the Summer House also has not been and currently is not in compliance with zoning and environmental rules," Cohen wrote this week in the letter sent to the town's building commissioner, zoning administrator, licensing agent, Natural Resources Department director, Health Department director, and tax assessor. The association "does not seek to have the Summer House shut down, just to be a good safe neighbor that operates in a manner that respects and complies with applicable rules and laws."
The slow expansion of The Summer House over the years - both in terms of its physical footprint and breadth of its operation - has left its neighbors disillusioned with a business that many consider a jewel of 'Sconset.
"While most commercial properties on Nantucket get few or no police complaints, the Summer House has logged more than 300 police complaints in the past decade,' Cohen wrote. "Many of these complaints are demonstrative of the negative impacts of the unauthorized expansion of the commercial activity without proper permits and conditions, and relatedly of the owner’s unwillingness or inability to follow the rules."
In an email response to the Current, deBenedicitis disputed Cohen's allegations and maintained that the business would be open for the summer.
"I disagree with the factual and legal assertions in the letter and will address them with the proper authorities," deBenedictis stated. "We are planning on opening for our 44th season and look forward to serving our many faithful clients."
Cohen told the Current that the neighbors wanted to raise the issues outlined in his letter with municipal officials long before The Summer House is required to go back before the town to renew its licenses for the 2024 season and give it time to address them.
"The neighbors have been concerned with these things for a long time - they're symptoms - but they didn’t have an understanding of zoning and codes and rules as to whether or not anything could be done about it," Cohen said. "The neighbors assumed permits were in place and everything was legal, but that appears to not be the case. Part of the reason for filing way in advance is to avoid undue delay. If they’re going to be able to open they should have time to clean it all up."
Cohen's letter specifically calls out The Summer House for allegedly completing new construction within a zoning setback; expanding its commercial uses beyond what is permitted; not meeting parking requirements; failing to obtain a major commercial development permit; conducting construction work and activities within a wetland area; paying residential taxes on lots in which commercial uses are happening; and completing work without Historic District Commission approval.
While Cohen acknowledges that some of The Summer House's business was operating before the town adopted its zoning bylaw in 1972, and is therefore considered a pre-existing, nonconforming use that is grandfathered, the establishment has changed, added, and expanded in ways that should trigger additional permitting and zoning relief that was never obtained.
"The Summer House Inn lots are in the SOH Zoning District and the Beachside Bistro lots are in the LUG-3 Zoning District, neither of which allow for the current commercial uses," Cohen wrote. "While any portion of these lots that was in commercial use before the adoption of zoning in 1972 may benefit from pre-existing nonconforming zoning status as a commercial use in a residential zoning district, any portion of this land that was not in commercial use, or that abandoned that use, would not benefit from that status...abandoned pre-existing commercial uses are lost and cannot be re-established unless otherwise provided for in the bylaw. For the Summer House Inn lots, the attached title report demonstrates that at least seven cottages appear to be properties that were in noncommercial private residential use for more than three consecutive years since 1972."
The town has not yet responded to Cohen's letter.