Dennis Officials Push Back Against Eagle Pond Shelter Plan

by Alan Pollock
The Housing Assistance Corporation’s property at 1 Love Lane, South Dennis, formerly Eagle Pond Nursing Home. FILE PHOTO The Housing Assistance Corporation’s property at 1 Love Lane, South Dennis, formerly Eagle Pond Nursing Home. FILE PHOTO

SOUTH DENNIS – Chafing from its inability to provide any meaningful review of the project, the Dennis Planning Board is pushing back against plans to redevelop the former Eagle Pond Nursing Home as a transitional shelter for homeless families.

Following a public hearing Monday afternoon, the board voted unanimously to appeal the decision by the Dennis building commissioner to consider the Housing Assistance Corporation’s project under the so-called Dover Amendment, a state law that allows projects with educational components to bypass most local review. The board also unanimously recommended that the town retain special counsel to represent the planning board in its appeal.

The property is just over the Harwich town line and can only be accessed by Main Street in North Harwich. A number of people who spoke at Monday’s hearing were Harwich residents. Dennis town officials asked the Cape Cod Commission to review the project as a Development of Regional Impact, but the request was denied. On Monday, the planning board also voted unanimously to appeal that decision.

The Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC) purchased the former 142-bed nursing home at 1 Love Lane, a dead end where Main Street in North Harwich crosses the Dennis town line, and is advancing plans to use it to house as many as 79 families who would otherwise have no safe place to live. The developers say a key component of the operation is its educational component: residents will be required to attend courses on financial management, family planning, MassHealth enrollment, housing programs, parenting, cooking and other life skills. HAC officials say this educational model has proven successful in other shelters on Cape Cod, and focuses on families — often single parents with children — who remain in the shelter for a short period of time until they can find permanent housing.

The planning board raised a number of concerns at a meeting on April 1, and HAC Attorney Peter Freeman said his clients were listening and have provided additional information “and ideas that we believe are responsive to the concerns that were raised.” At that session, some board members complained that the outdoor recreational areas for children were located too close to the property line near an industrial property where large trucks routinely operate.

“We have agreed to put a six-foot wooden stockade fence around the perimeter of the entire property, except for the front, of course,” Freeman said. The developers have also retained a security consultant to review the project and will use a bank of closed circuit cameras to monitor the property. The security consultant will be retained on an ongoing basis, he added. The developers have agreed to meet with key town officials before the property is ready for occupancy, “but it’s not a subsequent approval,” Freeman cautioned.

Freeman provided the town with a series of letters from local nonprofit groups in support of the project. Falmouth Police Chief Jeffrey Lourie also sent a letter expressing strong support for the transitional shelter, saying a similar facility in his town has been well managed and helpful.

Planning board members complained that the abbreviated review under the Dover Amendment does not allow for a traditional site plan special review, at which the board and town officials can scrutinize issues like traffic, wastewater treatment, landscaping and building plans. Without that information, the planning board lacks the ability to have a meaningful role in the process, they argued.

“We still don’t know how many occupants” will be allowed, board member Elizabeth Patterson said. An earlier estimate indicated that there might be as many as 177 residents of the shelter, but the project documentation only indicates that the development will comply with maximum septic flows allowed by state law, with or without a special groundwater permit from the state.

Board Chair Paul McCormick, Jr., took issue with the planned siting of the two children’s play areas, which he said would be difficult for officials to directly monitor for safety. “I think that’s despicable,” he said.

It’s clear that the educational component of the proposal, required for eligibility under the Dover Exemption, is secondary to the sheltering component, board member Rick Hamlin opined.

“It’s my belief that HAC’s primary purpose is housing, not education,” he said.

Board member Adam Dunn said he believes there is a need for transitional sheltering for people who need housing, but he has concerns about some elements of the proposal.

“I think we all have real questions about this,” he said.

All of the members of the public who spoke at the hearing opposed the proposal, and many cited the possibility that the shelter might be used to house people who are in the country illegally. Eileen Starrs of the group Cape Cod Concerned Citizens said the planning board’s primary responsibility is to serve residents of the community, “and not a nonprofit entity seeking a work-around to their intended goal.”

Chatham resident Tom Murphy said the shelter is not to help local people.

“It’s to help [Governor] Maura Healy’s immigrants,” he said. “It’s not going to help young people like me who are living on couches with family because we can’t find apartments down here. It’s going to foreigners who’ve been flown in from Haiti or Mexico or wherever,” he said.

Freeman said the state’s emergency assistance program is a source of funding for the project, “but it requires that they be legally documented residents, not illegals. Legally documented.”

Dennis Town Counsel Amy Kwesell reminded the planning board that it was the building commissioner’s determination that the project is eligible for the Dover Amendment. “Your board is not determining the use,” she said.

As for whether the HAC project qualifies for inclusion, Town Planner Paul Foley said that while the statute is fairly specific, “over time, the courts have broadened that definition” to allow educational uses that are not traditional classrooms. “It’s not what everybody thinks of as a school, but there are educational aspects to it,” he said.

The planning board voted to appeal the decisions of both the building commissioner and the Cape Cod Commission, though It was not immediately clear what the legal mechanisms would be for doing so.

“The Commission is aware of the Planning Board’s vote last evening,” Cape Cod Commission Communications Manager Sarah Colvin wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “We will monitor how the Planning Board proceeds in furtherance of that vote and respond accordingly.”