Habitat Faces More Issues On West Harwich Project

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Housing and homelessness

A Habitat for Humanity build in West Chatham.  FILE PHOTO

HARWICH — Habitat for Humanity of Cape Cod put forward a new ownership agreement to address site control issues raised by the appeals board last week, but ran into new concerns about whether rental units in the historic Judah Chase House were legally permitted.

The nonprofit is seeking a comprehensive permit for an eight-lot subdivision that would provide six-affordable homes off Route 28 in West Harwich. Two of the eight lots currently contain existing homes, including the Judah Chase House.

Last Thursday's hearing was the third held by the board on the application. Members of the board questioned how Habitat could assure site control of the eight lots when Harwich Ecumenical Council for Housing, the present owner of the land, was planning to retain ownership of two of the lots.

Habitat agreed to a continuance at an earlier hearing to work through this issue. Last week, Leedara Zola, a member of Habitat's land acquisition and permitting team, said a new purchase and sales agreement had been developed that would have Habitat purchase the entire eight lots. The two front lots with the structures would then be conveyed back to HECH; a purchase and sales agreement on the two lots is in place.

The complexity comes with HECH and Habitat trying to work with the town and neighbors to save the historic Chase house, Zola told the board. HECH has crafted a deed restriction that requires the Chase house to maintain its historic facade.

The new ownership agreement appeared marginally acceptable to board members. There were still questions about returning the ownership of the two lots to HECH and the potential for sale of the lots. There were also questions about the number of affordable units being proposed and the use of existing units in the structures at market rates.

Appeals board member Dean Hederstedt said Habitat is asking for waivers – including reduced square footage on the two lots with the structures and keeping the six units in those structures market rate – but the town is getting nothing in return. He suggested more units should be affordable.

Zola pointed out under the comprehensive permit law, 25 percent of the units are required to be deed restricted as affordable, and under this proposal, 50 percent, the six houses on the lots, would be affordable. There is no requirement that 100 percent be affordable, she said.

HECH attorney Andrew Singer said the struggle the appeals board is going through is about the uniqueness of the two houses and the barn they want to save. He said if the structures were removed and Habitat came in for 12 lots, with 50 percent affordable and 50 percent at market rates to subsidize the affordable housing, that might be more acceptable.

“If the board of appeals would have no concerns with that type of development, that is the project you have in front of you with a little twist,” Singer said. The total units in the project include the six lots, three units in the house and one in the barn on the Chase property and the two units on the adjacent lot.

Hederstedt wanted to know how long Habitat would control the front two lots. Zola said there is no time frame under the law. Singer added the thought always was that the properties would be sold.

The new agreement calling for conveyance back to HECH for a dollar immediately after Habitat's purchase “doesn't pass the smell test,” Appeals Board Chairman David Ryer said.

“It's not a shell game,” Singer said. “We're trying to be upfront about it. We're trying to save these structures and that's what's driving this angst.” He said there is no legal requirement to preserve the historic structures and they could be taken down tomorrow.

Zola then made a presentation on outstanding questions raised in the previous meeting. Burke said Habitat should review its application to the appeals board to adjust it in compliance with changes that have been made, including the site control issue.

“There are a number of things out of sync with the present application,” Burke said.

“We want to get it right,” Zola agreed.

The board cited a letter from attorney David Reid representing several West Harwich residents questioning the number of units in the Chase house and the barn. While the application cites six units on the two front lots, including three in the Chase house and one in the barn, town assessing records show only two units in the Chase house, he said. Three units there would constitute “multi-family housing” which is forbidden in the Commercial Highway One District, Reid's letter stated, questioning the legality of the units.

Singer responded he could not speak to the permits for the structure, but said when HECH purchased the property a decade ago the three units were already in the house.

“You're asking this board to grant a permit to create those permits, which otherwise were never granted before,” Hederstedt said.

“At the end of the day you are right,” Singer replied.

Singer said under the comprehensive permit request all of the uses would be approved. He also said each of the eight lots created would be subject to the conditions of the comprehensive permit.

Burke also raised an issue about the West Harwich plume caused by a Dennisport laundry more than 20 years ago. He said he saw the Bennett Environmental Report, but admitted to not having the expertise to understand the methodology used in conducting the study. He requested a review of the methodology used in the study.

Zola pointed out that is why Habitat had a study done on the proposed site to make sure it was suitable.

There were other questions raised about the conditions of the dwelling units on the properties now and whether they have been property maintained. The appeals board agreed to have the building commissioner review the status of the permits for the units and inspect the living condition.

The appeals board continued the hearing to its April 26 meeting, providing time for those questions to be answered.