Russ Allen: What Comes Next?

Labor Day is come and gone and summer is over. Most tourists, vacationers, and summer visitors have packed up, crossed back over the bridges, and returned to their homes, colleges, jobs, and lives.

The end of summer marks the de facto start of a new year, as schools reopen, work schedules resume, fall sports initiate their seasons, and, before too long, we begin plans for the holiday season. That makes this a good time to consider matters that need to be addressed, especially by those who reside in the town of Harwich year-round.

The first is the need for adequate housing. Both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the town of Harwich have determined that 10 percent of its housing should be affordable. Though two housing plans have been adopted by the board of selectmen establishing that goal, the actual number stands at half that amount. As someone said at the last town meeting, “A plan is not a plan if there is no element of implementation.” Harwich’s most recent housing plan calls for both more affordable residences and adequate rental housing for the low-end wage scale workers upon whom many businesses and services depend, yet it does not contain a strategy for implementation.

Found around Harwich is evidence of housing construction ranging from affordable houses built by Habitat for Humanity to small homes on equally small lots to mega mansions valued in access of $1 million. Clearing has now begun on a wooded area off Route 39 in East Harwich that will be divided into eight lots of roughly one acre each. Since most new construction on Cape Cod is for second homes, there is little evidence that the goal of creating adequate and affordable housing reflected in Harwich’s housing plan will be achieved in the near future.

A related challenge facing Harwich is reducing the pollution of our lakes, ponds, streams, and groundwater. Progress has been made to address this in part for the East Harwich area through an agreement with the town of Chatham, but new housing developments such as the one mentioned above can limit the success of that effort. Any real response to the environmental challenges facing Harwich should include setting limits on further large construction projects.

The third area is addressed in the recently completed draft of a hazard mitigation plan for Harwich, one of several developed by town governments in conjunction with the Cape Cod Commission. Replacing or amending one approved in 2011 and reflecting a similar Commonwealth-wide plan adopted in 2013, it outlines how Harwich will address emergencies ranging from blizzards and hurricanes, fires and floods, erosion and sea level rises due to climate change, an emergency at the Pilgrim nuclear facility and any disaster that requires a mass evacuation of the Cape. The 261-page draft plan outlines its implementation by town government in response to specific emergencies, but the public’s knowledge of the Harwich Hazard Mitigation Plan will require its broad dissemination into the community and its residents in a concise and understandable form, if it is going to be of more than limited use.

The final challenge facing Harwich is related to the situation facing immigrants who live and work here, whether documented or undocumented. In the months leading up to the spring town meetings, the Cape Cod Coalition for Safe Communities sponsored a series of citizens’ petitions asking towns on the Lower Cape to self-designate as Safe Communities. In some cases, this was done to renew a similar step taken in 2013, after the passage of the Patriot Act, when town meetings passed a resolution regarding the “Protection of Civil Liberties.” While four 2017 town meetings approved their Safe Communities designation and a fifth community supported it in principle, the Harwich Board of Selectmen dismissed the matter without debate, despite the fact that its provisions, especially regarding the non-use of local law enforcement resources to enforce federal immigration policy, are already de facto followed in Harwich. The sponsors then withdrew the petition.

Except for washashores with historic family roots and Native Americans, all who live in Harwich are immigrants or come from immigrant stock. Most immigrants today are documented, and the undocumented are mostly persons who overstayed their visas. Being an undocumented immigrant is not unlawful – rather it is a civil offense which, under our system of government, is the responsibility of the federal government to address. Nevertheless, many immigrants, both documented and undocumented, now live in fear of being taken into custody, having their family members separated, and deportation, an action that could lead to risk to liberty or life.

Immigrants and non-immigrants are residents of the town of Harwich who pay their taxes, obey the law, work hard at often low-paying jobs, and seek a better life for themselves and their children. How we help each other achieve those goals in safety and with success is an area deserving our attention as a town, its government, and its people.

These are just a few of the challenges Harwich faces as summer ends and a new season begins.