HARWICH — Selectmen made it clear Monday night they support a referral of the Captains’ Row area of West Harwich to the Cape Cod Commission as a district of critical planning concern, but they held off requesting a pending a recommendation from the planning board.
Residents of the area have come together in support of protecting the historic structures, many built by 19th Century sea captains, along a stretch of Route 28 running from the Herring River to the Dennis town line. Efforts are underway to create a historic district there.
But the initiative escalated when a plan was filed with the historic district and historical commission to tear down the Captain George Winchell Baker House, built circa 1878, to make way for a new retail complex. The commission issued a one-year demolition delay which will expire in mid-September.
Harwich Retail, LLC, a proposed developer of the site, spent six months pursuing permits from the planning board to construct a 7,489-square-foot retail outlet on the property, which was met by protests from residents of the area. The Captains’ Row group called for the town to refer the development proposal to the Cape Cod Commission. The project proponents withdraw the application, but Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh said the board could refer the project for review as a district of critical planning concern (DCPC) based on criteria that includes community design, cultural heritage, transportation and the economy.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said the planning board is the primary committee to deal with the DCPC issue.
Selectman Donald Howell said selectmen should refer the matter to the planning board. He said he has had a discussion with Cape Cod Commission staff about the use of a DCPC and they would be willing to consider it. The town could institute new zoning, but a project there could be grandfathered before new zoning is implemented, he added. That opportunity goes away with a DCPC.
Howell suggested the board initiate discussion with the planning board about submitting a referral and the selectmen then following up with their support. It would be a stronger request when coming from both the planning board and selectmen, he said.
Howell offered a motion to ask the planning board to refer a potential DCPC in West Harwich to the commission and have them get back to selectmen with a recommendation.
Selectman Michael MacAskill noted that the planning board was not invited to the selectmen’s session. Ballantine said he was concerned something might happen before the planning board could act. Selectman Stephen Ford said he hoped the planning board is an integral part of the process.
Duncan Berry, one of the prime movers of the Captains’ Row initiative who was also appointed to the planning board Monday, encouraged selectmen to make sure this gets referred to the Cape Cod Commission. He pointed out the DCPC that stopped a Dollar General store from being built in Eastham was filed by that town's board of selectmen.
“A DCPC is a powerful planning tool that allows a town or a group of towns to impose a moratorium—a 'time out'—on certain types of development or activities in a specific area to plan and adopt special rules and regulations that will protect natural, coastal, scientific, cultural, architectural, archaeological, historic, economic, or recreational resources or values of a regional, statewide, or national significance,” Berry read from commission documents.
“I think this is a no-brainer,” Berry said. “This is a great opportunity when you can’t do a zoning provision or a historic district.”
Selectman Ed McManus said the town needs a precise description of the area. Howell said it was not on the agenda in a way that allowed selectmen to make that decision, but he agreed with McManus that the board has to define what they want to protect.
The board voted to refer the matter to the planning board for a recommendation. The next meeting of the board will be early in September.
Under the previous proposal, the Baker House was to be removed and become parking. There was support from the fire department for having the derelict building removed; it is marked with a red X indicating it is unsafe for firefighters to enter. On Monday evening approximately an hour before selectmen were to convene the meeting, fire and police personnel from Harwich and Dennis were called to the Baker House on a report of smoke coming from the building. Fire Chief Norman Clarke said there were homeless people inside cooking dinner.