Housing, Spending Challenges Are Top Topics At Candidates Night

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Politics

Mark Mathison (left), Erik Oliver (center), and Cecil Newcomb met on their way to the stage before last week's candidates forum at Nauset Regional Middle School and obliged a photographer.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS The three candidates for two seats on the board of selectmen are grateful for the opportunity they've had to live here and worried about the lack of same for the next generations.

“Of all the kids I taught in this town over the last 45 years, most have moved away,” Selectman Mark Mathison said. “They can't afford to live here.” His daughter, a teacher at Nauset Regional High School, lives at home while she saves to buy land or a fixer-upper home. Cecil Newcomb said his daughter, a 13th generation Cape Codder, and her husband are raising their family off-Cape “because they couldn't find a combination of work opportunities and an affordable home and childcare here.” Eric Oliver said the town's “current model is unsustainable. Businesses cannot thrive when more than half the homes are empty for half the year. Affordable housing alone will not work unless there are good jobs and infrastructure.”

The three men talked about the issues at a candidates evening hosted by the Orleans Citizens Forum and moderated by Duane Landreth at Nauset Regional Middle School May 9. The annual town election will be held May 21 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the senior center on Rock Harbor Road.

In opening remarks, Mathison recalled that town politics “was more polarized than I had ever seen it” when he ran for office three years ago. “The discourse was not always civil. Emotions oftentimes triumphed over fact and reason... As a town, we have made significant progress in dealing with many of the issues that faced us three years ago.” He described a board whose members “are willing to listen, to hear the other side, to not be swayed by the polarity that swirled around us at times, and respectfully, oftentimes grudgingly, move from their opposite extremes to a position that allowed us to move forward and go ahead with projects that need to be done.”

Mathison said he ran three years ago because he wanted to speak for a segment of the town “that really had no voice—young people, working people, young families.” He wanted to “bridge that gap between those young struggling families and a town that has a very rich tradition... We need to respect the history and traditions of this town, but we can't be stuck in the past.”

Newcomb, who grew up in a house across from what is now the middle school with eight siblings, spoke of his service in Vietnam and his work as a commercial fisherman and operator of a small mooring business. Now retired, he's in “full support” of dredging the Nauset estuary for safe navigation and rescue operations. He wants affordable housing for the town's workers. “We need these people,” he said. “That's what makes a community a community that thrives.”

Among other priorities, Newcomb wants “transparency in town government. I will work to make sure department heads and employees are accessible, responsible and accountable to citizens.” Most importantly, he said, “let's be a green community in more than name only.” He called for putting solar panels on municipal buildings and reducing plastic waste in addition to supporting efforts to clean up local waters.

Oliver, whose Cape roots go back to a boat named the Mayflower, said he left the Cape to attend college and intended to live permanently in the South. “After several months, I was missing the culture, beauty and people of the Cape,” he said. The town “needs to retain people that are here and attract new year-round residents. Solutions aren't easy but they are attainable,” including fostering “meaningful professional occupations.” With job opportunities must come housing. “Many of my friends make $25 to $30 an hour as contractors and they can't afford to live in Orleans,” he said. “That should allow you to have a bed someplace.”

The candidate highlighted the increasing debt the town is shouldering to address wastewater and other concerns. “It's vital we have a healthy economy,” Oliver said, adding that the selectmen “should look for policies that improve the economy to the benefit of everyone.”

A lively question-and-answer session followed. Newcomb was the only candidate to back the purchase of a conservation restriction for Sipson Island, recalling how the town “missed a great opportunity” in the 1980s to buy Campbell's Boatyard for access to the water. “Someday that barrier beach will be gone,” he said, “and that island will be more important to us than it ever was.” Oliver said he thought the money for Sipson “could be better spent on the mainland. I don't think we're in danger of that island being overdeveloped.” Mathison said his major concern was that “the vast majority of people in this town could never get there. I'd rather spend a million five to buy property on the shore and establish a town landing where you could have kayak racks and town parking.”

On expanding opportunities for affordable housing, Mathison said he has supported the sewer system because of the potential for denser development of housing. “I know many people wanted to focus just in the village district downtown,” he said. “We've seen what gets built in those kinds of places is way too expensive for the average person. We need to start looking at places like the underground mall, or the old DPW buildings... I know people are concerned about sprawl, but having housing down by the rotary is no more onerous than a body shop or a mini-golf course.”

The price per foot is “pretty expensive in downtown areas,” Oliver said, which means Orleans has to consider housing at sites such as the old mall or the soon to be vacated Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank operations center. “We need to look at opportunities where some real estate is a little less expensive.”

The old mall “is a little bit out of town, but not unreasonable,” Newcomb said. “With some zoning changes, you could put a couple more buildings on that lot... We need to be more cognizant (that fire department employees) have to live within seven miles of the station. We're losing these people now because they can't afford to live in the area.”

Asked how the financial condition of the town will affect such initiatives, Newcomb proposed hiring a full-time grant writer to increase revenue. “I know the tax rate will probably climb some,” he said, “but I still think this is a fiscally responsible town. They will never let it get out of hand.” Oliver said the town is spending on “some fairly large projects” and will probably be looking at a tax increase, perhaps as much as 20 percent over the next five years. “These are things the town needs to do,” Mathison said. “They only get worse if they're not addressed.” He said the town is paying for debt as quickly as it can to minimize interest charges. “We're not saddling future generations with a lot of that debt.”

The candidates kicked around ideas to increase revenue. Mathison said the town needs to define what it will pay for through taxes and then consider user fees for other services, such as oversand vehicle permits. Also, Orleans needs to encourage “sensible development. The more the tax base goes up, the more dwellings, the more people here year-round, the better served the town is.” Oliver agreed that further exploration of user fees was warranted, while Newcomb suggested a look at a slight increase in taxes for people who don't live in their Orleans home more than half the year.

Mathison said he has discussed “for a couple of years the potential of looking at a split tax rate. I've seen so many of my friends and family lose their homes to a developer that turned it into a rental property. Why would we incentivize something like that? It's time we look at de-incentivizing the industrialization of our homes and look at getting people living here year-round... If you want to have a second home and you're willing to rent year-round to someone in the home, then you could pay the same rate.” None of the candidates endorsed a split tax, but all agreed it should be studied.

Responding to a question, Newcomb said “we should save every historical building in this town we can save... The town or people can step up and buy these properties and protect them.” He recalled playing as a child in the historic but recently demolished Kendrick-Sparrow House. “It crushed me to see that bulldozed,” he said. “I'm afraid of what will happen to the Academy if we don't come up with some money.”

Historic preservation is “very important,” Oliver said. “It's part of the charm of Orleans. When that goes away, a little piece of our culture kind of goes with it.” He suggested tapping community preservation funds where appropriate.

Mathison said he'd seen too many homes “torn down because somebody wanted the lot.” Citing the town's recent investment in the affordable housing trust, he wondered if a working group using funds from the trust and the community preservation fund “could be first in line to buy these old properties and restore them and rebuild them and keep them as vital parts of our communities.”

None of the candidates offered a solution to the growing concern about sharks in local waters, with all noting that Mother Nature has the only vote that matters. What the town can do, all said, is be proactive in preparing emergency response protocols, monitoring beaches, and reviewing technology that might discourage unwelcome visitors.

All three said they have no objection to legal marijuana businesses locating in town.

In closing, Mathison said he would use what would be his second and last term to continue the board's emphasis on working together “with respect and dignity, dialog and discussion, and decisions based on fact and reason” while “bringing more people into the process.” Oliver said he wants to be “a voice for people struggling here now, but also middle-class families, lower-income families that would like to get back here.” Newcomb said that, in retirement, he has the time to invest in addressing the challenges. “This is the town I grew up in,” he said. “It's the town I'm going to die in. I love this town. I want to do everything I can to preserve it and make it better.”