Harwich Town Meeting Finally Approves Operating Budgets

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Town Meeting , Municipal Finance

Clara McLardy raises questions about changes being made to the multi-family zoning amendment during Saturday’s annual town meeting.  WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

Special District, Multi-family Update OK'd

HARWICH — It was long awaited, but residents finally got the opportunity to act on the annual town meeting warrant in an outdoor setting on Saturday. Five operating budgets were approved totaling $68, 957,862, a 1.4 percent decrease from last year's budget.

Voters also approved unanimously a zoning amendment that creates a West Harwich Special District with a focus on historic preservation and a zoning amendment updating the town’s multi-family zoning provisions.

“It is important to note Harwich’s financial house is in good order as evidenced by Standard and Poor’s upgrading of the town’s credit rating to the coveted AAA basis on its evaluation of the town’s very strong economy, strong management, financial policies, practices and relatively low debt,” Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine told voters.

However, he painted a bleak picture of the town over the past year, noting the impacts of a tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic. Early assumptions projected a 12 percent loss in tax receipt revenues, but the overall reduction was only 2 percent, he said.

Still, the town was facing a deficit of $574,171, and selectmen agreed to make up the difference using the town’s stabilization fund. An article placed before the budgets in the warrant seeking allowing use of that reserve fund was approved.

After the vote was taken and before town meeting acted on the town operating budget, Gary Conroy took exception to the use of the stabilization fund. He praised the board for doing a “nice job” on a conservative budget, but objected to taking money out of the reserve account.

He said the town has had a 24 percent budget increase since 2018 and has one of the highest tax rates on the Cape. He made reference to major sewer costs facing the town, adding that increased employment and capital costs are creating huge financial pressures.

But voters moved quickly in approving the $39,035,455 town operating budget with little discussion. The Monomoy Regional School District budget of $26,820,046, an 0.7 percent increase, also passed with no debate. Voters approved the Cape Cod Tech budget, water department budget and wastewater sewer department budget without discussion. Town meeting approved the capital plan, including a new ambulance for the fire department at $378,000, with a unanimous vote.

A zoning amendment on multi-family dwellings generated the first substantial debate of the session. The amendment is the result of selectmen and the planning board coming together last year to look at ways of expanding more affordable housing in the community, said Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh. The amendment allows multi-family use in more zoning districts in town, Greenhalgh said.

Clara McLardy questioned whether the proposed changes were designed to help with a 100-unit housing development under consideration along Route 137 in East Harwich.

“I think this may be to help the feasibility of this project and people of this area didn’t have a chance to express their interest in this project,” McLardy said. “I’m concerned about the ecological impacts. We need to stop harmful construction.” McLardy wanted to know how the proposed changes in the zoning bylaw relate to 40B comprehensive permit projects, which can waive local zoning to provide additional affordable housing.

Greenhalgh said 40B projects are not regulated by local zoning bylaws and can be much less restrictive. The multi-family proposal restricts development to the provisions in place for East Harwich, which is four bedrooms per acre, she said.

Water Commissioner Allin Thompson wanted to know if greater density would be allowed in drinking water resource protection districts, but Greenhalgh said it would not. Any development would have to comply with the one bedroom per 10,000 square feet provision for those districts, she said.

The amendment allows town staff to work to create what is desirable in a neighborhood, the town planner said.

“This is an orderly process,” Selectman Donald Howell said. “Some of the bylaws have gotten out of whack over the years. This has nothing to do with 40B projects. I urge your support.” Voters approved the amendment.

Historic preservation has been a major focus in the community in recent years, especially along Captains’ Row, the section of Route 28 in West Harwich from the Herring River to the Dennis town line. Voters were asked to approve a zoning amendment to establish the West Harwich Special District, which puts in place regulations for a district of critical planning concern established last December by Barnstable County.

The district provides protection for historic structures along the stretch, said Greenhalgh. One resident asked if it would affect placement of solar structures on non-historic building roofs in the district. The answer was “no” and voters approved the zoning amendment unanimously.

Voters approved nine Community Preservation Act articles, including $500,000 for the new community playground project for the Harwich Elementary School and $380,360 for a new lighting project at Whitehouse Field.

Former selectman Linda Cebula, acknowledging the playground will be on school property, wanted to know when the public will be allowed to use the facility. Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers said the public has access after school, weekends and nights. Each day, 400 to 500 students from the school use the playground, one voter said.

The 46-article annual town meeting went smoothly with voters approving many of the articles by unanimous vote.