CHILMARK — Visiting Martha’s Vineyard for the first time in the 1990s, Thomas Bena was struck by its unspoiled beauty. There were no fast-food franchises, no big-box retailers, none of the indiscriminate sprawl that had overtaken so many other places.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he says. “It was the perfect place to live.”
Bena, who had grown up in Lakeville, cobbled together carpentry, catering, and painting jobs to pay for a year-round rental. Bena enjoyed the money but was alarmed by the bash-and-build trend of wealthy summer residents building ever-larger homes — some big enough to accommodate an airliner — especially in the bucolic up-island hamlet of Chilmark.
And so for the past 12 years, Bena has been working on “One Big Home,” a documentary about the oversize residences — or, as they’re known on the island, “starter castles” — that have risen on the landscape like gray-shingled behemoths. Bena has waged what has sometimes been a lonely and divisive campaign to curb the size of new construction and preserve the pastoral quality of the island. The feature-length film is now finished, and screenings at the Chilmark Community Center have sold out.
The movie is personal for Bena — he’s on camera for much of it — but he is hoping his concern about the impact of so-called McMansions will play beyond Martha’s Vineyard. He has been approached about showing “One Big Home” in Truro, Chatham, and Westport, Conn., seaside retreats that, like the island, are grappling with ways to regulate new construction.
“I think people want to talk about this,” the 48-year-old Bena says.
Doug Liman agrees. The Hollywood director whose credits include “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” has been coming to Martha’s Vineyard for 25 years and owns a modest-size cottage built in 1707 by one of the island’s earliest English settlers. He thinks Bena’s film is important.
“Thomas opened my eyes. The way of life that’s alive and well in Chilmark is what it used to be like in small towns across America 100 years ago,” Liman says. “My family went to the Hamptons, so I understand what happens when a slice of perfect utopia gets overdeveloped, when one way of living is replaced by another.”
Bena graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and worked for a few years in TV and movie production in Los Angeles. But indifferent to the people and priorities in L.A. — and aghast at the traffic — he hit the road with a backpack, arriving on Martha’s Vineyard in 1997. Three years later, he created the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, which now has three full-time employees and screens films year round.
Bena got the idea to make a movie of his own while hammering nails into a giant new home in Chilmark.
“The house I was raised in was 1,200 square feet, so 4,000 square feet felt huge to me,” he says. “The other carpenters chuckled and said, ‘This is nothing.’ There was a 24,000-square-foot compound being built on the island then.”
Bena eventually began showing up with a camera, a la provocative filmmaker Michael Moore, at job sites and planning board meetings. Carpenters, electricians, and plumbers whose livelihoods depend on ultra-rich summer residents building lavish second homes viewed him with suspicion. It didn’t help that the first-time filmmaker, tall and bespectacled with the gentle bearing of a college professor, could seem patronizing.
“Thomas thought he could just jump in and do things, but once you’ve had your head handed to you a few times, you realize maybe you should learn the process and do your homework,” says Chris Murphy, a retired fisherman and member of the Chilmark Zoning Board of Appeals who has lived on the Vineyard since the 1940s. “You can draw a circle and bring people in, or you can draw a line and keep them out.’
“Thomas learned how to draw circles,” Murphy says.
Over the course of the movie, Bena’s activism mellows in part because he got married and had a baby. Another reason, however, is because he and his wife bought an old house in Chilmark and tore it down to build something bigger — just like the out-of-towners who are the focus of his frustration.
“I felt like I’d sold out,” he says. “I was tormented. I had these ideals in my head, but the reality was I wanted more.”
The film chronicles Bena’s efforts to build what he wants — a 2,900-square-foot post-and-beam house with a bathtub large enough to get his knees wet — while also lobbying to limit the size of new homes in Chilmark, a patchwork of postcard-pretty farms, rolling hills, and waterfront that is home to barely 900 year-round residents. He led the campaign for a 3,500-square-foot limit on new construction, motivated to act by a sprawling complex built along Quitsa Pond in Chilmark by Adam Zoia, CEO of the New York-based financial-services recruiter Glocap Search.
Neighbors complained that Zoia’s 8,238-square-foot compound, which includes a main house, a two-story barn/garage, pool, and tennis court, violated existing zoning regulations. Town officials disagreed. This month, one of Zoia’s neighbors, former “This Old House” host Bob Vila, put his own large house on the market, asking $15.9 million for his seven-bedroom, six-bathroom spread. Zoia did not respond to an interview request.
“Each town on the island has its most offensive large home, and it’s always a combination of taste, visibility, and size,” says Martha’s Vineyard architect Peter Breese, whose ambivalence about a one-size-fits-all restriction is clear in the film. “But I think, more and more, the cultural trend is not in opposition to Thomas’s sensibility. People are being careful about the size of their homes and the impression they make.”
In the weeks leading up to the vote to limit the size of new homes, Bena put together a binder of arresting, before-and-after Google Earth images of recent construction in Chilmark. He also countered the concern that tradespeople could lose their jobs if the new zoning was approved, by tallying the number of building permits that have been issued in the past decade for projects larger than 3,500 square feet. There weren’t many.
“Some people said, ‘See, there’s no problem,’ ” Bena says. “And I said, ‘Exactly. There’s no problem — yet.’ I can’t tell you how many places I’ve been where people were, like, ‘You should’ve been here 15 years ago.’ Are we going to let happen here what happened to the Hamptons, to Sag Harbor, to Aspen, to Vail?”
Bena’s movie concludes with Chilmark residents overwhelmingly approving the zoning change at a raucous town meeting in 2013.
Liman, whose job as a director of big-budget Hollywood movies has taken him to many spectacular places around the world, says Chilmark still looks much as it did 200 years ago and it would be a shame if willy-nilly development changed that. Liman believes people should be able to do what they want, but not at the expense of everyone else.
“This isn’t Disney. The center of town is the porch of the Chilmark General Store, where pretty much everyone has lunch,” says Liman. “There’s a sense of community here and thinking about the impact of what you do is important.”