Housing Advocates Struggle With Gov. Prence Property

By: Ed Maroney

A common area at the Governor Prence Inn is graced by a gazebo. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS Is the Governor Prence Inn property the hill affordable housing advocates want to die on?

In a joint meeting Tuesday night, the affordable housing committee and affordable housing trust board considered what advice to give the select board the following evening about acquiring the parcel for housing and other uses. By March 15, the select board must decide whether to ask this spring’s town meeting to purchase the 5.5-acre site on Route 6A for $2.8 million.

While all committee and trust members were committed to seeing some housing at the location, there were concerns about bringing the request forward at the same time that voters will be asked to approve bonding $2 million in Community Preservation funds toward site acquisition for the 62-unit Pennrose development at the former Cape Cod 5 operations center.

“I wish the timing were different,” said trust board chair Alan McClennen. “Having stood on the town meeting floor on a number of occasions, I have watched good projects go down with companions because you couldn’t separate the two of them.” A two-thirds majority will be required for the Pennrose effort, and “somewhere within five numbers of that warrant article would be (Governor Prence),” McClennen said. “You could see some confusion. If someone wanted to take down any one of them, all you need to do is tie them. We saw that with the Herrick property and Sipson Island. As soon as people started talking about Herrick, I knew we’d lose both.”

A community survey that drew a large response, and a consultant’s study of the site’s potential, have provided insights, but the time to do the kind of preparation that the committee and trust did for the Cape Cod 5 site has been lacking.

“I’m usually kind of a pedal to the metal kind of person,” trust member Ward Ghory said earlier in the meeting, “but I do think even if the Governor Prence were standing alone, for me to be standing there saying I don’t have a plan, I don’t have a (development) cost, and I want you to fund me, that’s tough.”

Others stressed the importance of the town having a say in the development of such a large downtown parcel, whether for various types of housing or mixed uses. “Our job is to advocate for housing,” said Katie Wibby, a member of both groups. “There’s going to be disagreement even among the people in this room about what’s best suited for that site… The study shows we can do something with it, (but) it’s going to take time. We shouldn’t lose an opportunity to gain control of it.”

It’s not known whether the owners would be willing to grant an extension that would allow a detailed development plan and funding scenario to be prepared for voters at a fall town meeting. Another option that drew some support was using housing trust funds, with approval of the select board, to purchase and hold the property while more detailed plans were developed. If they didn’t work out, the trust could sell the property.

Asked by McClennen to describe what zoning would allow on the property, Planning and Community Development Director George Meservey said, “That’s a lot easier than trying to imagine the ‘worst-possible scenario’ – which I think would be an amusement park.” He said many uses are allowed by right in the “highly permissive district,” but stressed that the town has a strong site plan review process and an architectural review committee “that’s got some muscle behind them.” Finally, he noted, “We’re surrounded by water. That’s a really good thing for real estate values, but not necessarily commercial real estate. There’s a limited market out here.”

Bill Stoeckert of the housing committee said he sensed a “general consensus that we should definitely purchase this property, but if the expectation is that the select board is expecting us (to say) this is what we see as the exact uses for it and all the forms of housing, we’re just not prepared to do that.”

Select board member Andrea Reed, a member of the housing trust, said it seems “very challenging in a year where we have been working since summer, meeting almost weekly to deal with the financial health of our town to go in front of town meeting and say we have no financial clue about how to make this happen. We believe it’s a great use. I don’t think there’s one single member of the select board that doesn’t support housing. My fear is that the timing of this for many, many reasons without good numbers behind it makes it very hard for taxpayers to get behind it.”