Appeal Of Demolition Of "Meridian Cottage" On Nantucket Harbor Rejected By Select Board

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Photo courtesy of Nantucket Preservation Trust

The Select Board on Wednesday denied an appeal by the Nantucket Preservation Trust (NPT) of the Historic District Commission’s decision to allow the demolition of the so-called Meridian House located at 29 Commercial Wharf along Nantucket Harbor.

Board members, on the advice of town counsel George Pucci, found that NPT did have standing to bring the appeal, but voted 4-1 that the HDC’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious, the high standard all appeals of regulatory board decisions are held to. Vice Chair Matt Fee was the lone dissenter.

“I think it’s a matter of opinion and opinion is really not the issue here,” Select Board member Malcolm MacNab said. “The rules are the rules. I don’t believe [the HDC was] arbitrary.”

The Nantucket Preservation Trust alleged in its appeal that the HDC did not follow its own guidelines and should have determined that the Meridian House, built in 1955, was a contributing structure to Nantucket’s status as a historic landmark, in keeping with a recommendation from the National Parks Service. This would have made it more difficult for the Nantucket Boat Basin, the property owner, to move ahead with demolishing the building. But no hearing was held to determine whether the structure was significant.

“This structure marks an important shift in the development of the island’s [tourist economy],” NPT executive director Mary Bergman said. “Without a proper hearing to determine if the structure was significant or not, how could the decision be anything other than arbitrary?”

The HDC emphasized its sole authority to determine what counts as a contributing structure, even without any official meetings, and its broad leeway to determine the appropriateness of demolitions.

“It is at the discretion of the HDC board to determine whether something is significant. Simply because it is more than 50 years old does not automatically make it significant,” HDC commissioner Ray Pohl said. “We felt that it did not rise to that level and therefore we stand behind our decision.”

As part of the process to get approval to demolish the Meridian House, the Boat Basin got also approval from the HDC to move the Land Bank's building located at 15 Commercial Wharf (the former Rowland house next to Petrel Landing) onto the Meridian House property. That move is expected to happen this month. 

Much of the debate on Wednesday centered on whether the issue was rendered moot because the building had already been demolished - and whether the proper permits for that demolition had been received. According to HDC staff and an attorney for the Boat Basin, after the HDC ruled that the demolition could proceed, the Boat Basin received its permit on March 13th, 2023. They demolished the building on March 14th. The following day, the permit was officially filed with the Town Clerk.

“Once the certification of determination is filed with the Town Clerk that starts the clock. Any appellant has to file an appeal within 10 days,” town of Nantucket operations administrator Erika Mooney said.

Since the determination was filed with the Town Clerk after the building was demolished, NPT couldn’t file its appeal until the structure had been razed and the issue potentially rendered moot.

“The certification of appropriateness was filed the day after it was demolished, so it wasn’t possible for my organization to appeal this decision while the structure was still standing,” Bergman said. “Are we just going to shrug and say there is no recourse? I worry that without Select Board intervention the status of our historic landmark is going to continue to erode.”

The Nantucket Boat Basin is part of White Elephant Resorts, the group of island hotels, shops, restaurants, and other commercial entities owned and operated by Steve Karp’s New England Development.

Nantucket Boat Basin attorney Rick Beaudette argued that, whether the process was ideal or not, no rules were broken and there was nothing the Select Board could do. The issue was irrelevant the minute the building was demolished.

“There is no remedy that this board, or the HDC, or any court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could fashion that would allow this structure to be replaced. It’s impossible,” Beaudette said.

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Commercial Wharf following the demolition. NPT photo

It was not the first time the Select Board had ruled on an appeal of an HDC decision filed after a structure in question had been demolished.

“I was promised this would never happen again.” Fee. “I feel like there is a process that is not working here.”

Select Board Chair Brooke Mohr attempted to prevent the discussion from turning to the HDC’s process, but Fee and Select Board Member Dawn Hill Holdgate both expressed concerns that the process allowed a building to be demolished before the appeal period was exhausted. In a contentious back-and-forth exchange, HDC vice chair Stephen Welch questioned the Select Board’s authority to weigh in on the processes of other elected boards, interrupting Mohr and calling the discussion inappropriate.

“I would like to get clarification on the Select Board’s authority to have a remand that includes directing future actions of a separate elected board with respect to other applications” Welch said. “The only reason I ask is because the appellant asserts that is what you should find.”

Mohr called his question “speculative” and no answer was ever given.

Ultimately, the Select Board set aside the process issue, though it seemed to remain an important factor in Fee’s vote, as he highlighted the lack of an appeal period in his final remarks.

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