Documentaries

How a Small-Town Carpenter Took on the Mega-Rich of Martha's Vineyard—and Won

A new film explores a zoning battle in one of the country's toniest beach resorts.

Photo Credit: Ray Ewing

One Big Home director Thomas Bena was working as a carpenter on Martha's Vineyard when he started noticing how empty the area had become for much of the year. 

"At first I really enjoyed the work, but over time I found myself working on larger and larger homes," Bena said. "The larger the home, the more my sense of uneasiness increased. And the fact that they were often third or fourth homes seemed incongruous with their enormous size. They looked more like bus stations or hotels, not summer cottages."

"The houses were heated year-round and I found the waste of resources shocking and depressing," Bena explained. "Not only did the 'starter castles' dwarf the cottages and historic homes they replaced, they seemed out of keeping with everything that I love about Martha’s Vineyard."

Bena grew nostalgic for the tradespeople, artists, Native Americans, and travelers who first drew him to the area.

"The sense of place was unlike any that I’d encountered. Instead of strip malls, franchises and billboards, there were stone walls, rolling hills and incredible beaches," he recalled. 

C_OBH_Marthas_Vineyard_Satellite_2k_Static_08_After_Year.jpgC_OBH_Marthas_Vineyard_Satellite_2k_Static_08_Before_Year.jpg

The population of the town of Chilmark is just under 1,000. Ultimately, it would take 162 voters at an annual zoning board meeting to approve a new bylaw limiting house size, radically redefining the notion of private property for its residents. 

"This is a pro-community film template of activism," Bena told AlterNet. "A community determines its own destiny... The law had to pass by two-thirds vote; it was unifying." 

Bena is also the founder of the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival. 

Watch the trailer for One Big Home:

"I traveled for years with a backpack and I came across place after place where people said, You should have been here 10, 20 years ago," Bena said of his decade-plus stint as a nomad. 

According to Bena, while affordable housing remains a major national issue, it's probably best dealt with locally.

"I don't think it's waiting for the federal government to come fix it," he concluded.

"What I'm proud of is giving the little guy a [chance] to speak," he said of the film. "If you act like it doesn't matter, it will go away.  There are places in the world that need to be kept intact and I think we should work to protect those things."

The film took 12 years to make. One Big Home screens February 27-April 12 in select cities. 

Watch an exclusive clip:

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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