HARWICH — The Cape Cod Commission issued unanimous support on Thursday when nominating for consideration the West Harwich District of Critical Planning Concern. The commission’s next step will be to conduct a public hearing to consider such a designation.
As part of the nomination, the commission concluded that there is a need for special planning and regulations to preserve or maintain values and resources intended to be protected by the Cape Cod Commission Act. The designation of a DCPC is seen as a tool that allows for a moratorium, or time out, to allow for additional planning and regulations to be put in place to protect a specific area and resources.
Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh told the commission the town still has in place 1970s zoning and it did not come to light until a recent development proposal was filed with the planning board seeking to construct a 7,489 square foot retail outlet and to demolish a historic structure built, circa 1878.
“After nearly seven months of hearings, the application was ultimately withdrawn; however, it brought to light the fragile nature of this corridor to the demolition of historic homes to make way for the construction of larger retail business, that are not in keeping with the community character of this area and perhaps the needs of the residents and visitors to this area and Harwich as a whole,” Greenhalgh told the commission.
The district would encompass the Commercial Highway One District along Route 28 from just west of the Herring River to the Dennis town line. There has been active neighborhood support for the preservation of historic homes along that stretch with neighbors organizing to protect what they have termed as “Captains’ Row.”
Commission historic preservation staff member Sarah Korjeff told the commission there are 24 structures from circa 1750 to 1914 contained within Captains’ Row, the 43-acre proposed district, and “represent the area’s association with successful maritime industries.” She pointed out that the area was evaluated by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and was deemed eligible for listing as a district on the National Register of Historic Places.
The DCPC application submitted by the board of selectmen cites the need for a cultural, historic, archaeological resource district; economic resource district and a transportation management district.
The designation of the area as a DCPC would provide the town with an opportunity to develop regulations to support and enhance the small-scale local economy of West Harwich, Korjeff said.
Summer traffic congestion and safety on Route 28 is a daily concern for residents and visitors, and there have been 40 accidents along that corridor during the most recent five years of data, 18 of which were at the intersection of Division Street and Route 28 at the town line. One of those resulted in a fatality.
“Designation of the area as a DCPC will also provide the opportunity to incentivize appropriate development while also ensuring appropriate layout, design and scale for desirable uses,” Greenhalgh said. “This is an important aspect in gaining a balance between protecting community character – cultural heritage and community design – and addressing realistic commercial/economic needs of the community.”
“It’s a rare opportunity to protect something this special because once it’s gone away, it’s never coming back,” Selectman Donald Howell said.
Howell said that, one by one, the historic treasures along that corridor are being picked off. He urged the commission to give the town time to address this issue with regulations.
Planning board member Duncan Berry, an architectural historian who lives along the corridor and is one of the organizers of the Captains’ Row initiative, said every major architectural style in America is represented there.
“It’s a very unusual conversation of historical dialogue,” Berry said. “It’s a wonderful inter-generational dialogue we seek to preserve.”
Planning board member David Harris, an architect, said the DCPC is a wonderful tool for use to preserve the architectural history of West Harwich.
Korjeff said the nomination would allow for a special planning district to be created to protect resources of significance that can be protected under the act. She said the commission staff would assist in the process and there would be strong public participation.
Brewster commission member Elizabeth Taylor called the DCPC the best tool in the commission’s box and she is happy to see it used to allow the town “to make decisions without people breathing down your neck.”
Bourne representative Stephen Mealy cited the use of a DCPC put in place in 1998 in Bournedale to protect drinking water, assure safe transportation and historic and natural resources on nearly 2,000 acres. He praised the outcome of the DCPC in serving to protect the character of that community.
Commission member Ronald Bergstrom, the county commissioner’s representative, put forward the motion to nominate the West Harwich DCPC and the commission approved that nomination on a 16-0 vote.
A moratorium will remain in place while the commission and the town goes through this process. But certain permits will be allowed to be issued, including repairs and maintenance to single family homes, non-residential structures and accessory structures; but no increase in the number of bedrooms; changes to the interior of commercial structures that do not change the footprint; repairs and new signs are allowed; development and redevelopment if all permits were issued prior to Sept. 19 and 40 B permits issued prior to the nomination. Municipal and state projects are allowed, as is emergency work.
The commission will begin consideration of the designation with a public hearing to be held at Harwich Town Hall at 5 pm. on Tuesday, Oct. 22.