ORLEANS—“When I got elected, I think I was the devil if you listened to the sewer people,” Selectman Mark Mathison said last week. It's said the devil is in the details, and that's where Mathison, one of three candidates running for two seats on the board in next month's election, has spent much of his tenure.
“My question right from the beginning with the sewer issue,” he said, “was, 'Are we talking about cleaning up the water or talking about revitalizing downtown?' Usually, people would say, 'Aren't they the same thing?' I never thought that it was. I always felt that that if this whole notion was about cleaning up the water, there were better and cheaper ways to do it.”
In fact, he tried to put that into practice when he built his house off Brick Hill Road in the late '90s.
“I wanted to put in a composting toilet,” he said, “because I live right next to a saltwater estuary with a vernal pool right behind me. The building inspector said, 'You realize if you do this you still have to install a fully functioning Title 5 septic system' as well. I couldn't afford to do both, so I had to eliminate my plans to put in a totally non-polluting system.”
Since then, Mathison said, the state has allowed such alternative systems if a plan is drawn up for a traditional Title 5 system, which doesn't have to be built. More changes were ahead, including the state's growing acceptance of non-traditional nitrogen removal methods such as aquaculture. Mathison dove into the details of the Lonnies Pond oyster experiment, becoming an advocate for more local control of the project.
“I have said that I understand clearly that sewering is the only way we'll be able to have the necessary housing for young people, working people in this town,” he said. “Now it's just an issue of doing it in the most effective way.” He challenged the town's consultants to settle on a disposal site for treated wastewater, vowing that “I won't vote for anything until you tell me where we're going to put it.” That was resolved when a location near the transfer station was identified, with land at the Route 6 cloverleaf as a backup.
Mathison says increased housing density is needed up and down the Route 6A corridor's business districts, not just in the downtown village. He recalled a planning board hearing at which someone spoke about a friend who wanted to move out of a big house in South Orleans and wound up in Chatham when he couldn't find anything in town. “Here's what I don't think should happen,” Mathison said. “The guy with the multi-million dollar property in South Orleans is here a few months a year and goes to Florida for the winter. He's gonna sell that place to somebody else who'll do exactly the same thing, and he'll move into a condo that will cost $1 million in the center of Orleans, and he'll still go to Florida. So Tuesday night in February, who's going to dinner in a restaurant in downtown Orleans? Drive down by the rotary. Are you telling me that those places are much more beneficial to the town than housing for young families and working people?”
Mathison is grateful that he was able to buy a home in town, one that backs up to Orleans Conservation Trust property and allowed him to give daughter Alexis and son Brandon a taste of what his own youth was like growing up in a house in Eastham his parents built 200 yards down the road from Nauset Light Beach. “From the time I was 2 years old,” he said, “I was in the ocean, with the lighthouse shining in my bedroom window all summer.” That his children, one a teacher and the other an architect-in-training, live with him illustrates the difficulty of the next generation's search for housing.
The candidate, who'll turn 70 this month, remembers the coming of the Cape Cod National Seashore and working as a lifeguard at its beaches. “Initially, many people who worked there were local people,” he said. “They had an affinity with the Cape. That all evaporated over time. In order to get promoted, you needed to move.” Eventually, personnel from parks where the federal government made all the rules came to the Cape where they had to interact with six towns with their own rules, not always smoothly.
Mathison remembers the days when lifeguards taped dimes to first aid kits and under the guard stands. In emergencies, they would grab a coin and dash up the 60 or so steps at Nauset Light Beach to the payphone and call the Eastham rescue squad. After years of pleading, phone lines were run to boxes at the bottom of the stairs and the lifeguards would plug in phones daily.
But then a chief ranger had a problem. He gave the lifeguards “a $25 Radio Shack walkie-talkie,” Mathison said, and told them to use it contact a ranger in the parking lot, who would then use his big Motorola unit to call Seashore headquarters in Wellfleet, which would call the rescue squad in Eastham. The guards wound up running up the stairs again to make contact, but the chief ranger turned down their request to restore the beach phones, telling them, “If you use those phones, the local police will show up with the ambulance. I'm not going to have local police directing traffic in front of my National Seashore parking lot.” A trace of the irritation Mathison felt then can be seen in his frustration with the slow pace of projects to protect Nauset Beach and dredge the Nauset Estuary.
Mathison loved his Cape Cod summers and moved to Eastham after he graduated from high school. He studied engineering at Northeastern University in Boston before transferring to Stonehill College in Easton. While in school, he worked half the week as a truck driver on the Cape for Snow and Jones Plumbing Supply. He was a math tutor to some high school students and enjoyed playing in the Cape adult soccer league. In his senior year, he had a series of concussions while playing and took a semester off, working on a fishing boat.
To finish up at Stonehill, he joined two friends who were going to Mississippi to student-teach. Mathison, who had never been out of New England, drove down with them in a yellow VW Beetle with Massachusetts plates. Working in a parochial school with mostly African-American students, he found he enjoyed teaching and, when he got back to the Cape, he taught seventh and eighth graders in a special Nauset program for children with learning disabilities and emotional problems.
Over a Nauset career that began in 1974, Mathison has taught history, biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, and geometry. He got involved in the teacher's union, rising to president, and coached the soccer and sailing teams.
Mathison's political profile became more prominent when he spoke at town meeting a few years ago in support of Steve Smith's call for a $50,000 study of dredging Nauset Estuary. He joined the shellfish and waterways advisory committee and worked on improving residents' access to town landings.
After his election in 2016, Mathison wound up on a four-member board of selectmen. “In a way, the perception that that the board would be split on everything might have forced everyone to consider that a 2-to-2 vote gets you nowhere, so there needs to be a dialog and needs to be a willingness to find some real true spot that everybody can live with,” he said. “In spite of the differences we might have on some things, we're always able to get to that essential piece of what the town needs to have, and those things have gone forward.
If he's re-elected, Mathison's second term will be his last. “If you get elected, you have a constituency that feels you're expressing their opinions and working hard for them,” he said. “At the end of two terms, you walk away and it's somebody's else's chanc