County Commissioners Approve West Harwich Planning District

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning , Historic preservation

Harwich news.

On 2-1 Vote

HARWICH — On a two-to-one vote, the Barnstable County Commissioners approved the ordinance establishing the West Harwich District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) last week. County commissioner Ron Beaty cast the dissenting vote.

The ordinance allows the town to put in place a one-year moratorium on development to provide time to address zoning deficiencies along a stretch of Route 28 from the Herring River to the Dennis town line. The town has identified the need to protect cultural, historic and archaeological resources, enhance transportation safety and foster balanced economic development.

There was strong support for the district from commission chairman Ron Bergstom and commissioner Mary Pat Flynn.

“Second to our beaches, the architecture of Cape Cod is an economic draw, something people look for when coming here,” Bergstrom said of the town’s desire to protect 24 historic structures within the district.

“The whole purpose of a DCPC is to bring people together and to come up with a solution people can live with,” commissioner Mary Pat Flynn said. She pointed out her town of Falmouth has used DCPCs and they have worked well for her community.

In a statement released after the vote was made, Beaty said: “In keeping with my pledge and promise to defend and protect the private property rights of my Cape Cod constituents, today I officially voted against the burdensome West Harwich District of Critical Planning Concern, and refuse to sign ordinance 19-18.”

Beaty questioned why the town could not move forward with zoning amendments without a DCPC. He asked why the historical commission couldn’t implement a bylaw adding such protections.

Cape Cod Commission historic preservation planner Sarah Korjeff said the DCPC takes the pressure off the town, allowing them to study the situation and develop zoning amendments to protect resources of significance for the region without the threat of more development. Without the DCPC, she said the town does not have the ability to implement a moratorium.

Bergstrom said he has seen almost unanimous support for this, and there has been enough opportunity for individual property owners to see what it means to them.

“I applaud the town for having reached out during this process and I think they will continue to do so,” Korjeff added.

Beaty said he visited the area recently and met people who are against the district. He also said there are “some really bad buildings in the area that look like fire traps” like the town-owned schoolhouse built in 1872, and asked who is going to bring these structures up to standard.

Korjeff said there are opportunities to pursue grants for historic preservation, especially if the town pursues National Register of Historic Places designation, as the Massachusetts Historical Commission has suggested they do.

This is not something being imposed by the town of Harwich, Selectman Donald Howell said; it is being proposed by the citizens of West Harwich. He said the process has been very open, with public votes by the planning board and selectmen to send the DCPC request to the Cape Cod Commission. New regulations will also have to be approved by a two-thirds majority vote in town meeting, he said.

“If you approve this, you allow a process for Harwich to determine its own destiny,” Howell said. “The town is reasserting its rights about what the town should look like. There was no zoning when most of these houses were built.”

Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh said it was a proposed retail development that included demolition of the Captain Baker house, built in 1878, that drew attention to the fragile nature of this area. The planning board deliberated for seven months on that project before it was withdrawn.

The town implemented a demolition delay for a year on the Captain Baker house, but it expired on Sept. 18. The moratorium now in place has prevented demolition of that structure at this point, Greenhalgh added.

“The one-year waiting period is in itself a burden,” Beaty said of the demolition delay bylaw.

“This allows us to look comprehensively at the district,” Greenhalgh said. “There are no guidelines for renovations of these historic houses and that is what the town and neighbors are looking for.”

The fact that more than 100 residents attended a planning board hearing on that retail project is a testament to public participation in the DCPC deliberations, Greenhalgh said. The plan is to hold open public meetings and workshops every week or two with public participation as they shape regulations.

Planning board member Duncan Berry, who was one of the founders of the Captains’ Row initiative, said these issues have been ongoing since the 1970s when a Queen Anne style home was torn down to build a Friendly’s there. There were neighborhood protests and again when a Burger King was proposed along that stretch. He cited the unusual quality, density and singularity of the historic homes.

“It represents an example of American residential architecture from 1740 to 1940, the Colonial days to the motor age,” Berry said. He said there are Cape half houses and Georgian mansions right down to the gas station.

The flashpoint was the proposed Dollar Store with massive lights and plans to destroy an Italianate villa next to a Greek Revival Church. It was an abomination, Berry said, and that’s what brought everyone together behind the DCPC.

“We’d like to have continuity as we go into the future and zoning is a means to do this,” Berry said. “It’s quality of life and aesthetic continuity.”

Planning board member David Harris cited old zoning laws which are out of step with the town today and he cited the historic structures there which speak to the value of this area. He said they hope to address residential character without impacting the commercial area.

Historic properties have more value than just space,” Harris said. “I’ve seen them become jewels and part of a beautiful necklace.”

Harwich representative to the county Assembly of Delegates Elizabeth Harder said this DCPC is well crafted and it's what Harwich needs at this time. She urged a vote of approval.

Bergstrom said the focus now will shift toward new regulations from the town.

“It’s now up to you to do the hard work and convince the people of Harwich and town meeting,” he said.