2019 Was A Tumultuous Year For Harwich

By: William F. Galvin

U.S. Senator Edward Markey, Selectman Ed McManus, Speaker of the State House of Representatives Robert DeLeo, Senator Julian Cyr, State Representative Sarah Peake and Town Administrator Christopher Clark examine destruction along Parallel Street in Harwich Center in the wake of July's tornado. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH — It was a tumultuous year for Harwich, with Mother Nature firing a tornado across its boughs in July and political winds eroding the foundation of its government. The costs associated with the town’s comprehensive wastewater management plan also overwhelmed town officials and taxpayers.

But there was also a little sunlight through the clouds with the announcement by Standard and Poor that the town’s financial condition was deserving of a AAA bond rating, which will offset borrowing costs, including for major debt associated with wastewater infrastructure.

The people of Harwich also demonstrated they can come together in a leadership role to protect the character of the community, fighting back a proposal for a 7,500-square-foot retail complex along a historic stretch of Route 28 in West Harwich while continuing to battle to save a historic sea captain’s home from demolition.

Then there are the youngsters who have demonstrated rare energy and insight into the needs of the community and shown the fortitude to push beyond the circular conversations of committee in an effort to achieve a goal.

Youth Showing Leadership In The Community

The town should be very proud of Monomoy Regional High School student Lily Daniels-Diehl, who wants to revegetate Brooks Park Hollow; summer resident Pete Lipscomb, who sought to trade his lemonade profits for a new sidewalk along Route 28; and Monomoy Regional Middle School student Cole Strzepek for providing soothing socks to young patients in hospitals across this nation. The efforts of MRHS students in the Project Citizen program should also be recognized for their health and environmental contributions.

Daniels-Diehl, a high school junior, recognized the devastation of the July 23 tornado that ripped through town, especially the loss of trees in the hollow, and developed a plan through her Global Studies Program to revegetate the hollow and restore wildlife habitat.

She brought her plan to the recreation and youth commission and won approval before going to the board of selectmen. She is seeking tree and shrub contributions, going out to local nurseries and landscaping companies for donations, and has set up additional support within the community to plant the trees and shrubs. Her goal is to obtain 100 such plants to be planted.

Pete Lipscomb spends his summers on Harbor Road in Harwich Port and knows too well the dangers of a 10-year-old trying to negotiate safe passage along the edge of Route 28 to get to the village, Saquatucket Harbor or to his grandparents house off Neel Road.

The young entrepreneur set up his lemonade stand along Harbor Road and saw the opportunity to compound his initiative, hopefully adding a measure of safety with his profits. He sent $50 in profit to Governor Charlie Baker in a letter requesting that the state build a sidewalk.

“The issue we have with the Saquatucket Harbor renovation, there is a restaurant there, but no way to walk there, or anywhere. It makes me nervous. There is no way to walk to Schoolhouse Ice Cream, Dockside restaurant or to Harwich Port. One part where I live, you’re a foot from cars passing on the road,” Lipscomb told The Chronicle.

The governor sent the money back with a form letter encouraging Lipscomb’s civic involvement and adding the administration values his input. Showing his fortitude, Lipscomb sent another letter telling the governor it would be a “smart idea” to help the folks of Harwich.

Cole Strzepek has been battling epilepsy and spent a number of days in Boston Children’s Hospital. One of the 12-year-old’s fond memories was the playful socks he would receive to keep his feet warm. During a trip to the hospital this past summer he was disturbed to learn just a few pairs of socks remained. Cole and his mother, Erica, started working on Cole’s Socks for Smiles, setting a goal of collecting 500 pairs of socks for the hospital.

That goal was quickly met and far surpassed. Cole has collected more than 41,000 pairs of socks, providing many to the Children’s Hospital, Mass General Hospital and Hasbro Hospital in Providence. But many more socks have been distributed to hospitals across the country, bringing smiles and warm toes to young patients. Cole was honored this fall by the Epilepsy Foundation of New England with a certificate of heroism.

The students participating in the Project Citizen program at Monomoy Regional High School should also be recognized for their efforts in gaining the support of the board of health to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products and efforts to push a ban on single-use plastic straws to reduce plastic infusion into the environment.

Then Came The Tornado

The word tornado is not often used here on Cape Cod when describing weather conditions. Hurricane and nor’easter are terms more frequently in play. But that all changed shortly after noon on Tuesday, July 23 when a tornado hit Harwich with 110-mile-an-hour winds and cut a swath of trees along a 2.7 mile stretch beginning just west of Harwich Center and barreling east along Route 39.

The town was very fortunate that no serious injuries occurred and damage to major infrastructure was very limited. Power was lost to 93 percent of the residences and the major destruction was felled trees and blocked roadways. The town estimated 3,000 trees were lost along public ways, parks and conservation lands. Many more trees were down on private properties, resting on roofs, vehicles and manicured landscapes.

Harwich estimated damage at $3.2 million as the county sought FEMA funding for the towns impacted by the tornado, but the total did not reach the $9.6 million threshold triggering FEMA assistance. The town also filed a damage report with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and more than $1.2 million was approved by the commonwealth for Harwich in a supplemental budget this fall. Just before Christmas that budget was sitting on Baker's desk awaiting signature.

A Tough Year In The Administration Office

It was a tough year for administration in the town, with assistant town administrator Evan Melillo not surviving a probationary period at the beginning of the year. In an effort to replace Melillo in April, Town Administrator Christopher Clark put forward David D. Flaherty, acting town administrator in Raynham, as his choice for the position. But that was met with opposition by some selectmen, and in an executive session, selectmen convinced Clark to alter his choice and appoint Wellfleet assistant town administrator/town clerk Joseph Powers.

There was good news for the town in June when Standard & Poor Global announced the health of the town’s financial position was worth a AAA rating. It was a goal Clark had set over his five years in Harwich. The rating assists the town in receiving lower interest rates on general obligation bonds when borrowing money.

But Clark ran into a couple of negative ratings in his evaluation, which was conducted just after town meeting. Selectmen Donald Howell and Michael MacAskill issued 29- and 42.5-point evaluations when 65 points were necessary for Clark to receive his 2 percent cost of living increase. Ultimately, ratings issued by Selectmen Larry Ballantine, Ed McManus and Julie Kavanagh provided him with a 65.3 rating to obtain the increase.

But battles between Clark, MacAskill and Howell continued to escalate, often over the cost of phase two of the comprehensive wastewater management plan after the initial bids for sewer infrastructure installation came in at $2.8 million above estimates. Selectmen questioned the cost estimates provided by CDM Smith, Inc., the town's consultants. With a second round of bids issued for phase two, the town will need to return to town meeting for an additional $8.4 million to complete that phase of work.

The selectmen also took issue with the absence of backup paperwork associated with agenda items on which the board was scheduled to make decisions and the absence of documentation supporting recommendations from Clark. MacAskill on a couple of occasions stated he had “no confidence” in Clark.

From a personal perspective, such acrimony was not beneficial to him, Clark said. Facing some personal familial issues requiring his major support, Clark worked out a leave of absence with the board through the remainder of his contract, ending June 30, with an agreement he would not seek a new contract with the town. Powers was appointed temporary town administrator.

Town Meeting Not Happy With Spending

Town Meeting participants were a little restless in May with projected increases in spending in the 7 percent range driving up taxes. The town was facing wastewater infrastructure installation costs, new school costs associated with the new Cape Tech building, annual Monomoy Regional High School construction debt payments and building maintenance costs. Voters turned aside a $4.5 million reconstruction of Lower County Road.

Voters also put to rest a longstanding battle over whether the town should construct a pet cemetery and crematorium on town-owned land on Queen Anne Road. They approved a warrant article removing the land from the jurisdiction of the cemetery commission and returning it to the board of selectmen. They also rejected articles to establish a revolving fund to operate the pet burial grounds and a third article seeking and additional $131,000 to complete the work for the burial grounds.

Ford A New Member Of Selectmen

Board of Selectmen Chair Julie Kavanagh decided not to seek re-election to a second term. Selectman Michael MacAskill made the decision to run for another term. Candidate Thomas Sherry entered the race for his second attempt to gain a seat on the board. Candidate Stephen Ford also threw his hat into the ring. MacAskill was the top vote-getter and Ford out-distanced Sherry by 80 votes for the second seat.

Saquatucket Harbor Renovations

It was a great year for Saquatucket Harbor with the completion of dockside and landside projects providing a major upgrade to the municipal marina facilities. There is ample parking to accommodate boaters and the increased number of visitors, expanding access to the waterfront.

A new dockside restaurant and artisan shacks gave visitors a reason to linger and enjoy the harbor. The shacks are rented through the Harwich Community Center on a weekly basis and provide craftspeople with the opportunity to market local products. The first year was considered successful by renters.

The new Dockside Seafood Shack restaurant was also considered a success, and that was reflected when the leaseholder Joseph Griffiths presented selectmen with a check this fall for $8,500, which was in addition to the base rent established for leasing the facilities.

Lots of Issues In The Villages

There was a lot of discussion related to growth in certain villages in the town during 2019. Early in the year there was another effort to re-establish the Harwich Center Initiative, with residents and business owners coming together to see what improvements could be made.

There were already plans for improvements to the empty gas station site in the center of the village, with Saumil Patel working his way through the permitting process for a mixed-use convenience store with two second-floor apartments.

Stakeholder meetings were held to discuss ways of improving pedestrian and bicyclist movement in the village as well as parking conditions. Two former state senators, Paul Doane and Dan Wolf, both of whom live in the community, took charge of the effort. But the need for various studies on traffic, parking and economic growth were needed before the group could make recommendations, and thus the initiative group took a hiatus. Efforts are now underway to revitalize the effort.

In West Harwich, a proposal to tear down the historic Captain George Winchell Baker house, circa 1878, and locate a 7,485-square-foot retail outlet, said to be a dollar store, fueled neighborhood protest and added support to historic preservation efforts under way through residents Duncan Berry, Sally and Lou Urbano and others under the name of “Captains’ Row.”

The group had been pushing for protection of the 24 historic structures on a stretch of Route 28 from Herring River to the Dennis town line, mostly developed by sea captains and maritime-based entrepreneurs dating back to 1750.

The plan to demolish one of the historic structures and build an out-of-character retail outlet drew major criticism from residents, and at one point drew more than 100 protesters to a planning board meeting. Residents argued the need for upgraded zoning in the village and eventually won the support of the planning board and board of selectmen in filing a request for the Cape Cod Commission to establish a West Harwich District of Critical Planning Concern. That will establish a year-long moratorium on major development while the town takes the initiative to craft new zoning provisions.

The proposed develop of the retail outlet withdrew its plans from the planning board. The Cape Cod Commission, Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates and the county commissioners approved the ordinance establishing the DCPC. The moratorium also stays a decision by the historic district and historical commission invoking a demolition delay bylaw protecting the Captain Baker house.

In Harwich Port, business growth in the tightly packed village and parking and noise issues drew the attention of residents and town officials. The town established a couple of ad hoc committees in an effort to address and accommodate economic growth there.

The task of the ad hoc parking committee has been to locate more parking while keeping beachgoers from absorbing the limited parking in the village. The committee has released its report, identifying progress with the creation of employee parking in the TD Bank 35-space lot adjacent to the Schoolhouse Road municipal parking lot and using signage and education to keep beachgoers from using the lot. Directional signage was also helped.

Noise emanating from live outdoor music at a couple of the restaurants in Harwich Port led selectmen to put in place an anti-noise ad hoc committee to determine ways to keep residents living near the village and the business owners happy. The police department has issued several warnings and citations relating to noise complaints from music exceeding the criteria set by the town. Both Ember’s Pizza and Perks have complaints that will be going before a hearing officer in the near future.

Perks was also the location where former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, held a campaign rally this summer.