HAC: Eagle Pond Shelter Won’t Affect Harwich, Which Owns The Only Access

by Alan Pollock

SOUTH DENNIS – The conversion of the former Eagle Pond Nursing Home in Dennis to a transitional shelter for homeless families will have no regional impact, even though it can only be accessed by a road from Harwich. That’s the word from the developers and from the Cape Cod Commission.

The Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC) has 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 application is being made under a provision in state law known as the Dover Amendment, which was adopted in 1950 and exempts certain uses from local zoning regulations. Those uses include education, child care, religious worship and farming.

HAC Attorney Peter Freeman said education is a central component of the proposed family transition shelter center, with mandatory courses on “financial management, family planning, MassHealth enrollment, housing programs, parenting, cooking skills and other educational interventions.” HAC already operates several smaller shelters that provide similar services, and most residents are families, often with single parents with children, who remain in the shelter for a short period of time until they can find permanent housing.

Freeman said a ruling by the Dennis building commissioner concludes that the project is exempted under the Dover Amendment, which apparently allows only a perfunctory review by town officials. In March, Dennis officials referred the project to the Cape Cod Commission as a development of regional impact, but a Cape Cod Commission spokesperson said this week that the project failed to meet the qualifications for such a referral. While the project site is accessible only through Harwich, officials in that town also lack standing to conduct any review.

“Has there been any conversation with Harwich?” Dennis Planning Board member Elizabeth Patterson said during an April 1 meeting. “This is a very special site in the sense that, once you’re off the premises, you’re in Harwich,” she said. Patterson said the development will clearly impact the number of pedestrians, cyclists and other travelers in the area. “Main Street, Queen Anne, Great Western — that’s all Harwich. So now we’re infringing on another town once you’re off the site,” she said.

“We’re all infringing, respectfully, everywhere on the Cape,” Freeman replied. “I live in Barnstable but most of the time I go through Yarmouthport.”

Freeman said HAC retained Vanasse and Associates, a traffic engineering firm, to prepare a traffic impact report. “The report showed that there would be no adverse traffic impact for surrounding streets, including Harwich,” he said. The Harwich police chief was also present at a Dennis staff review of the project and had the opportunity to ask questions, Freeman said.

“The traffic numbers in terms of the amount of trips that are produced by the project are actually going to go down, we think, quite dramatically,” traffic engineer Jeffrey Dirk told the meeting. When it operated as a nursing home, the facility had more than 100 staff members on site at some times, far more than the HAC staff of around a dozen. With a nursing home, traffic flow is particularly heavy around shift changes. “That peaking of traffic that would occur is not a characteristic of what we’re expecting for the proposed use,” Dirk said, since most HAC staff work only in the daytime.

Another potential regional issue is the impact on schools, which are required to accommodate children who move into their communities. Dennis Town Planner Paul Foley said generally HAC clients are assigned to facilities close to the towns where they lived, and children are encouraged to remain in their home districts. Because of its size — accommodating 177 or more people — the South Dennis shelter would likely draw from around the region, and parents might prefer to have their children attend classes nearby.

“If you’re here for a while, after six months or however long, if you’re making that trip to Sandwich or Provincetown or wherever, that might get tiring,” he said. The site at 1 Love Lane is actually slightly closer to Monomoy Regional High School than to Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, but students could only attend the Monomoy schools if spaces are available via School Choice.

Dennis Planning Board member Rick Hamlin said the perfunctory “special review” that his board is allowed to conduct under the Dover Amendment provides far less information than a traditional site plan special permit review. He said he sees the strategy as “sort of an end-around to obviously get around the planning department, the planning board.” Hamlin said he has concerns about the safety of pedestrians on the access road and the change of use from a nursing home to a family shelter. He also questioned the viability of housing families with one or more children in 16-by-17-foot rooms.

“There’s just way too many unanswered questions in this project,” he said. “It should come back as a full site plan review.”

CEO Alisa Magnotta said the shelter program is HAC’s “pride and joy.” She said such programs sometimes face opposition from people who have preconceived ideas about people who are homeless.

“We are getting questions like, ‘What do they do at night when they come home?’” she said. “These are regular people. They’re people like you and me that have children, that have jobs.” Magnotta held up photographs showing all kinds of people, from parents with small children to older adults. “These are our homeless people. This is who we’re helping. This is who lives in our shelters,” she said.

The shelter program helps connect clients with the resources they need to resume living independently, to “understand how to be a good tenant, understand what the contract of a lease means, understand how to save money, helping them set up savings accounts, walking them through that process, helping them get their credit back in order.” Other HAC shelters experience few problems with others in the area.

“If a problem ever comes up, we are right on it. We are good neighbors,” she said.

The Dennis shelter would have two security guards on duty overnight, drugs and alcohol are prohibited from the premises, and guests would be logged in and out carefully.

The small room size for each family is by design, she added. The shelter will provide more security and comfort than a family would experience sleeping in a tent or a car, “but there’s also a level of discomfort that we need to have in place so that people will move on. I know that people who are housed have a really hard time understanding that,” she said.

“I don’t care who lives there. I care about site plan review,” Hamlin said. “I’m concerned that we’re lacking sufficient review.”

The Dennis Planning Board voted to continue its review until May 6, before which time it will confer with the town’s attorneys about its options.

“They may feel the same way that the attorneys for HAC feel, and so be it,” Chair Paul McCormick, Jr., said. “But I think it’s important that we have a meeting with them.”