But film-maker Thomas Bena says the house the Obamas are renting this year is a prime example of the kind of mega-construction that is threatening to destroy the character of the island.
Bena has spent 12 years making a film called One Big Home, which is being shown to islanders this weekend. It documents an issue that is as tricky for residents of the Vineyard as it is for beach destinations everywhere: how to protect small communities from the distortions created by an influx of wealthy visitors who come for just eight weeks of the year. The film chronicles Bena’s crusade against the proliferation of outsize homes in the town of Chilmark, where he lives with his wife, Mollie, and daughter, Emma.
Bena argues that the giant homes – often referred to as McMansions – are not only out of proportion with their environment but are wasteful symbols of the over-reaching vanity of their absentee owners. Over the past 20 years, what started as an aberration is now a trend – Mansionisation, or the practice of building the largest possible house on a plot of land…
A backlash has started, with people in Martha’s Vineyard – and in the Hamptons on Long Island – questioning the wisdom of land being turned over to mansions that sit empty – but heated – for 10 months of the year. In Los Angeles, the city planning commission recently voted to eliminate various loopholes, including one that grants a 20% square footage bonus for building “green,” that has been contributing to bigger-is-better mansionisation…
Bena believes McMansions have contributed to a new sense of “us and them”, local people and summer visitors. “In the summer you feel that tension wherever you go,” he says. “People put a smile on their face because they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, but it’s there.”
It seems that there are three issues at hand:
- The construction of large houses – McMansions – within long-standing communities leads to tensions in many communities, not just prime vacation spots. The situation is exacerbated here because the large house owners aren’t in the community all year long and so there is likely less interaction between them and the long-time residents. Of course, having neighbors that know each other doesn’t necessarily limit the anger regarding McMansions.
- The limits of tourism to transform existing communities. On one hand, tourism is often viewed by places as an excellent opportunity: other people come in, spend money (and can be taxed at higher rates – see the hotel taxes in many major cities), and then go home (the community doesn’t have to provide long-term local services like schools for the tourists). This may be preferable to polluting factories or evil corporations. On the other hand, tourism can bring in an influx of people who have their own ideas of what they want and can swamp the smaller local population.
- Having the President visit provides an opportunity for locals to draw attention to their particular concerns. Should they be proud the President is visiting or unhappy that such visits can be disruptive? This may just depend on one’s political leanings and which party is in office.
In this case, if outsiders want to spend big money on large homes (providing some local construction money and increased tax money) plus spend some time there during the year (spending more money), what limits should a vacation spot put on them?