Commission Hears Plan To Save Historic 'Starboard Light'

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Historic preservation

It looks as if Starboard Light at 154 Champlain Rd. will be saved, but whether on its original site or in another location remains to be seen. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The future of the historic home known as Starboard Light is looking a little brighter.

Robert Moss has a purchase and sales agreement on the 154 Champlain Rd. property and wants to move the circa 1860 Cape slightly east on the lot and build several other structures alongside it. While the old house would remain on the original property, it would be rotated so that the front faces west, and a new house built facing the harbor.

That puts the historical commission in the position of choosing between saving the house or the view from the harbor.

During a preliminary discussion with Moss last Tuesday, commission members were not excited about the proposal.

“You might as well tear it down as do this proposal,” said member Steve Burlingame.

Commission members said they'd rather see Moss make an effort to keep the historic home in its original location, and use the rest of the lot for new construction.

“That's very common,” Chairman Frank Messina said, referring to several projects in town where new construction has been added to historic buildings in a way that retains their historical integrity.

This summer the commission placed an 18-month demolition delay on the house, which was the subject of a documentary film, “Starboard Light,” by Nick Fitzhugh about his family's decision to sell the property. A six-month demolition delay was placed on additions behind and to the east of the main house after they were determined not to be historically significant.

William Mahoney, who purchased the property from the Fitzhughs in order to prevent a larger house from being built that would block the view from his home immediately behind Starboard Light, filed for demolition after he could not find a buyer who would honor height and other restrictions he placed on the property. Moss said he made an offer on the property three years ago but could not reach an agreement with Mahoney; he approached the owner again four months ago with a different proposal that would not only preserve Mahoney's view but enhance it.

The height of the current house is 20 feet, Moss said, and would have to be raised by eight inches to meet flood plain regulations wherever it is moved on the property. By moving it to the east and north, even with the extra height, Mahoney's view would be increased by 72 percent. The new building he proposed that would face the harbor would be 16 feet in height. Nantucket barn-like buildings that would be built on the east side of the property would be 19 feet high. Those buildings, as well as the original house, would hold bedrooms, while the new main house would serve as the chief living space, Moss said.

The low-profile buildings would be “something they would have built 100 years ago here,” not the typical modern homes which tend to push up against the town's 30-foot height limit, he said.

Given market forces, the commission is not likely to get a better proposal that will save the historic house, said Moss' attorney, William Riley.

“He's a unique buyer who doesn't want to build a big house. His goal is the same as your goal, which is to save the structure,” he said. Moss was asking for the demolition delay to be removed.

“I'd like to build this thing starting this winter,” he said.

Messina acknowledged that the primary goal is to save the structure. If the streetscape changes as well, “that's an option,” he said.

But given the concerns about the view from the harbor, Moss said he'd be willing to talk to Mahoney about keeping the old house in place and building the new one to the east.

Under Moss' plan “the historic house is lost,” Messina said. Keeping the main house as the property's most prominent structure as seen from the road is preferred. “We want to see what the historic house was. We want to show differential.”

The only option for saving the house appears to be its relocation to another property. Moss said another party has already drawn up plans to move it to a location about two miles away, where it would be renovated in “a more historical fashion.” He agreed to ask that party to provide a letter to the commission with details by its next meeting in two weeks.

“The board has two reasonable choices,” Moss said. “There should be no reason this house isn't saved one way or another.