Nantucket Has The Most House Moves In The State. Is That Too Many?

Jason Graziadei •

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Nantucket is said to have the most house moves of any community in the state. But does it have too many?

A decade ago, the town granted 19 permits for house moves. So far this year, Nantucket has issued 91 permits, a 378 percent increase with two of the busiest months for house moves still ahead. The rise has been driven largely by an explosion in the number of modular homes coming to the island by barge, with 70 already in 2022.

The situation prompted the town staff members involved in coordinating such house moves last week to request the Select Board to consider new regulations, fees, and restrictions on the practice that has become one of the defining characteristics of Nantucket’s offseason.

Town staff members are spending “massive, significant, extraordinary amounts of time on over-the-road moves,” town manager Libby Gibson said. “They’re getting to be a little more complicated, and those complications are starting to impact traffic and private property and other issues. It’s so significant that we felt we really needed to bring it to your attention.”

House moves have been almost ubiquitous on Nantucket during the fall, winter, and spring for years now. The trend is driven in part by economics and the extremely high cost of building on Nantucket: it’s less expensive to move an existing structure or float a modular over on a barge than it is to build a new home. There’s also the local bylaw that applies to any structure scheduled for demolition that requires property owners to advertise the house as available - typically free - to anyone able to take it away at their cost. And the ongoing Richmond Great Point subdivision that is under construction off Old South Road - a development that will eventually include 225-apartments and 94 homes - has been mostly modular units coming to Nantucket by barge.

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House moves - whether it’s a structure being recycled or a modular unit - have been critical to the island’s affordable housing efforts, and have allowed some year-round islanders to buy a home that would have otherwise been unattainable. The practice also keeps a significant amount of demolition debris from ending up in the municipal landfill.

While there is technically a moratorium on house moves during the summer months - from June 15 through September 15 - there are some “loopholes” and exceptions that have allowed some house moves to creep into that timeframe, straining town resources and creating traffic “nightmares,” said Erika Mooney, the town’s operations administrator.

The loophole allows structures to be moved during the summer if they’re completed by 10 a.m., and some developers have sought exemptions to the moratorium on the grounds that the modulars are slated to become affordable housing units.

“It's becoming really problematic,” Mooney said. “The town is so extraordinarily busy in the summer, there’s so much traffic, during those big Richmond moves, we have to close down parking along Washington Street and doing that in the summer is tough for those businesses.”

The amount of time required to coordinate a single house move - which often include the police, fire, building, and public works departments, as well as the utility companies like National Grid and Verizon - does not correspond to the cost of the permit, which is a mere $50, Mooney. They sheer number of modulars are also causing issues down at Steamboat Wharf, she said, where the normal crush of trucks in the summer are not competing for space on the wharf with modular units that come on barges.

There are also some companies that aren’t always cooperative with the town, and others that have incorrectly reported the size of the structure they were moving - whether intentionally or not. Mooney said one company this spring underreported the height of the structure they were moving, forcing them to have a worker climb the roof and take a sledgehammer to the chimney to get it under utility wires during the move.

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“It’s not safe,” Mooney said. “It’s not safe for the people involved in the move or the people on the roads with them.”

So the town administration put a series of questions to the Select Board last week: are house moves still considered a priority? Should the 10 a.m. summer loophole be eliminated? Can the permit fee be raised? And does it make sense to put a cap on the height of structures that are allowed to be moved, as the larger houses are far more complex and labor intensive for town staff?

“For me, these are definitely a priority,” Select Board vice chair Dawn Hill Holdgate said. “Most of the affordable housing is modular or recycled. Even if it’s not, it’s a more attainable way to build for year-round Nantucket residents with the way costs have gone. I think it does need to remain a priority, but I’m fine with the fee being more than $50. We do have to have the flexibility to do some stuff in the summer, but it should be prioritized.”

The Select Board seemed amendable to making tweaks to the timing, scheduling and fee structure for permits, but aligned with Hill Holdgate in emphasizing the importance of house moves for the island.

“We’re trying to figure out the level of disruption we’re all comfortable with,” Select Board chair Jason Bridges said.

“I never thought we’d be moving 90 when we were moving 19 in 20212,” Select Board member Matt Fee said. “I was wrong in 2014. I said the fee was fine. I didn’t think about the unintended consequences.”

The board asked the town administration to return to a future meeting with a series of recommendations it could adopt to address some of the issues that were raised.

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