Russ Allen: Is Harwich Moving In The Right Direction?

Eleven years ago, my wife and I moved to Harwich Center. At first reluctant to consider living here, when our agent showed us assets like the community center and Brooks Free Library, and a house that met our criteria, we changed our minds.

This column, my 48th, marks completion of four years spent learning about and deepening my appreciation for Harwich, a feeling strengthened reading the 2017 Annual Town Report and the warrant for the upcoming town meeting. I am impressed by the responsibilities carried out by the personnel we empower to act on our behalf, the number of volunteers who serve on various town boards and committees, and the openness to new people and new ideas reflected in the individual reports. Our town government is effective in giving financial, facility, personnel, guidance, and other forms of support to its institutions and programs, addressing issues and needs as they arise, and in the process determining the direction Harwich will move.

All that is wonderful, and while not everyone may agree with every decision made by town meeting, the board of selectpersons, committees or employees of the town of Harwich, we all should be grateful for how our local ship of state is being sailed.

However, all is not perfect in this little corner of our very special, yet fragile peninsula.

Many years ago, I spent time between my summer vacations reading every book about Cape Cod I could find. It was a marvelous way to maintain my connection with the place that meant so much to me, until I read a book, its title long since forgotten, that burst that bubble. The author, having decided there was an unknown Cape Cod, set out to uncover its underbelly. Poverty, unemployment, crime, alcoholism, domestic abuse, drug usage, suicide – his list went on. Were he writing now he might have added gun violence, racism, inadequate housing, immigration, and environmental issues as well as the significant gap between personal financial resources and the actual cost of living on the Cape.

Reading that book was unsettling – yet it prompted me to be objective about the Cape, and Harwich, which at times has influenced these monthly columns. Most Cape Codders have their own negative issues that range from annoying backups at the bridges to days without power due to storms, rude summer visitors competing with indignant year-round residents for being the most obnoxious, the absence of rewarding employment producing adequate compensation to meet the need for housing, good nutrition, security, medical care, and a quality life. There is a marvelous poster in the Harwich Community Center that pointedly says: “Imagine If The People Who Worked Here Could Also Afford to Live Here.”

There are also aspects of our community that leave some unsettled or uncertain. Why is the Brooks Free Library still in need of new paint? Should there be another restaurant at Saquatucket Harbor, and will that and other town facility improvements benefit all of Harwich’s residents or just a select few? Why a pet cemetery, and even more, why a pet crematorium? Is the new building being erected in the heart of Harwich Port an improvement? Do the large houses and housing developments being built in or planned for Harwich address its stated need for adequate and affordable housing? Is Harwich ready for the next series of winter storms, the inevitable hurricane to come, or the rise in sea levels predicted due to climate change? Why does it seem some parts of Harwich gain more official interest and initiative than others? Is Harwich’s development nearing a point of oversaturation?

There are no wrong or right answers to those questions – except as decided by the citizens of Harwich. Studying issues such as these, forming opinions and debating answers, and in time making decisions, are in our democracy the best way for our community to determine in which direction Harwich should move.

However, one question consistently bothers me. Is there a hidden agenda, known to only a few persons, that is determining the direction Harwich is moving? I recall many years ago, again while vacationing here, driving south on Route 137 and coming to the intersection with Route 39, stopping for the red light, and realizing that there was absolutely nothing there. Much has changed from that scenario, but recent activities suggest an intention for the East Harwich area to create large housing developments that require costly support services that might otherwise not be needed. If so, is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? More importantly, have the citizens of Harwich been asked if that is what they want to happen?

The town of Harwich is under pressure from the more urban and crowded Cape communities to its west to become what they are. Countering that is the desire by some residents whose views more reflect the towns to its east and north. Which will prevail lies at the heart of answering the question: Is Harwich moving in the right direction?