To the editor: Does anyone still care about Nantucket’s historic architecture? I’m asking because apparently, we can no longer rely on the HDC or the Select Board to consistently protect the island’s historic structures. As a result, our heritage is for sale to the highest bidder. I recently founded the Nantucket REAL Fund to advocate for a Resilient, Engaged, Authentic, and Livable Nantucket that prioritizes saving historic structures. Last week, Nantucket REAL appealed the HDC’s 3-2 decision to demolish an 1880s summer cottage located at 9 Sherburne Way. The owner wanted the house gone so she could have better views from her new house next door. She cut a deal with the HDC to save a fragment of the 19th-century structure and relocate it on the site. In the process, the HDC ignored advice from their own staff and blocked discussion of historic research that authenticated the 1880s structure. Today, most of this historic house is in a dumpster.
Nine Sherburne Way is more valuable to the owner with the house destroyed rather than restored. But is our island, overall, more valuable? This case is merely the latest example of how a faction within the HDC tilts towards development interests over historic preservation. Most of you will have seen the house on Main Street that is lifted up in the air, gutted, its pre-revolutionary war stone foundation walls demolished and chimney stack gone. The HDC could have required the developer to repair all visible material in a historically sensitive manner. Instead, they permitted its expedient destruction, making it easier for the speculator to build a large, poured concrete basement. 126 Main Street is a spec development. When complete, it will be a new copy of a formerly authentic historic house. The developer will profit, but the rest of us will be poorer for no longer being able to see and enjoy a historic house – which is the very reason we go through the trouble of having a Historic District Commission in the first place.
Nantucket’s exemplary collection of historic structures has been overseen by the HDC for nearly 75 years. Preservation is an intrinsic part of the community and a source of pride. But it’s also binary -- once you notice something is gone, it’s too late to bring it back. We think Nantucket is well protected by the HDC, but the truth is, it’s not. Many people in power throughout our town government believe that maximizing real estate value is the smarter way to go, even when it means obliterating historic buildings to create Disneyland copies and trophy houses for a new type of buyer. Because this stance is so pervasive, we are now dealing with what appears to be a collusive and corrupted situation.
In our appeal case, the HDC Chair had a client next door who benefitted from the demolition. The Chair initially said he would recuse, but the meeting recording shows he was talked into participating anyway. The owner’s Agent is an elected official who, at the very same time, was voting on the promotion and salary of our new Director of PLUS. The Director of PLUS oversees the employment of the HDC Vice Chair, who works as a building inspector. These aren’t accusations, they are easily confirmed facts. Our government asks civil servants to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. Last Wednesday’s appeal was a chance for the Select Board to demand conflict-free deliberation. Sadly, they disallowed any discussion of an improper process at the HDC and voted 3-2 against our appeal. How can we expect to regulate Turo cars or Airbnbs when our Select Board won’t even regulate town process? Of course, Nantucket REAL can ask the courts to review the HDC’s (and Nantucket’s) practices and policies. But we’d prefer to see Nantucket clean up its act on its own.
What can concerned Nantucketers do about this? As voters, you’ll soon have the opportunity to support policies and candidates that will promote a sustainable, well-governed, historic Nantucket. Keep an eye out for them, take a stand against collusion, and vote for change.
Hillary Hedges Rayport
Founder, The Nantucket REAL Fund