Town Meeting Stays on Track, OKs Housing and Other Initiatives

By: Ed Maroney

John Kelsey’s hopes were high that Orleans would accept his gift of a town flag, but voters hit the pause button Saturday. ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS Orleans is the new owner of the Governor Prence Inn properties.

On May 22, town meeting voted 246-34 – more than the required three-fourths – to buy the 5.5-acre downtown property and keep it off the market while ascertaining its best use for the community. In presenting the motion, select board member Mefford Runyon stressed that Saturday’s vote was about the acquisition, not the potential uses.

“What we’re really buying is time, time to bring the town to consensus,” he told voters assembled on the grass at the middle school track. “It’s too important an opportunity to pass by… a reasonable price to shape the long-term future of downtown.” Runyon noted that town meeting would have the final say on any proposed uses.

“Our biggest, most critical issue is housing,” select board member Mark Mathison said. “Our kids can’t afford to live here. The people we depend on can’t afford to live here… I will spend the next year of my term, my final term, ensuring we have housing. We need to start with this site.”

Saying he was speaking for people like himself and his wife, who still have to work in their 70s, and for the town’s young people, Bob Rich questioned making a nearly $3 million commitment to the property. “Let it be developed under private enterprise and under the control of all the regulatory groups,” he said.

“We can choose how this land will be developed,” said the finance committee’s Elaine Baird, who called the Governor Prence “the crown jewel of Orleans commercial property… This is not the time to let the market decide.”

On Tuesday, voters approved a debt exclusion for the purchase, 939-544.

Housing got a strong boost when town meeting voted to spend $2 million in Community Preservation funds for an affordable deed restriction on 52 of the 62 units planned by Pennrose, LLC, for the former Cape Cod 5 operations center (the remainder would be workforce housing). Those funds will go toward the purchase of the site; finance committee chair Lynn Bruneau noted that Provincetown’s town meeting has contributed $20,000 and Eastham’s town meeting on June 12 may chip in another $100,000.

Town meeting approved two other steps that will progress alongside the review of the Governor Prence properties: a $35,000 community center feasibility study (not tied to any site in town) and a $60,000 downtown economic development study. The first action reversed a vote of the Oct. 31 special town meeting not to fund a more costly community center study.

It was not the day’s only do-over. Restoration of the Mill Pond landing ($350,000), rejected in October, passed muster on Saturday. As with the Governor Prence initiative, it received debt exclusion approval at the polls Tuesday (1,008-470). That held as well for three other articles voters backed Saturday: $658,300 for Meetinghouse Pond area sewer design (1,151-326), $200,000 for design and related services for window and roof replacements at the elementary school (1,277-210), and $160,000 for engineering design and permitting services for the Nauset Estuary dredging project (1,099-379).

The 2021 annual town meeting marked the beginning of the enterprise fund era, as voters approved five of them – for beaches, moorings, Rock Harbor boat basin operations, sewer operations, and the transfer station – without a question. The five separate budgets, designed to show more clearly how revenues from user fees and expenditures, including indirect costs, are balanced, take effect July 1, along with the $37,658,824 town and school operating budget.

In an email after town meeting, finance committee chairman Lynn Bruneau noted that no more than 256 voters – “less than 5 percent” – attended town meeting. That’s “a pretty small percentage for deciding important things like an almost $38 million operating budget plus the budgets for the five new enterprise funds (including the increased fees in those budgets, as well as subsidies for two of the five budgets),” she wrote.

A revised schedule of use regulations brought forward by the planning board fell short of the necessary two-thirds vote at town meeting, with several speakers concerned it was too restrictive regarding home occupations. Voters also rejected (49-152) a petitioned resolution to advise the Nauset Regional School Committee and the system’s superintendent to reduce the school choice program and reopen contract talks with Provincetown and Truro about joining the region.

Near the meeting’s end, artist John Kelsey appeared amidst the voters, hoisting aloft the town flag he created and offered to donate to the community. Select board member Cecil Newcomb spoke against accepting the gift (his colleagues had voted unanimously to accept it), saying design of a town flag should be open to all in a competition. The article was postponed indefinitely, not voted down outright. As the decision was announced, Kelsey lowered his standard.

“I was so pleased with the town of Orleans Annual Town Meeting, including hanging on to quorum by one extra voter right to the end,” Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan wrote in an email. “Some folks are critical of this old New England town meeting process but the speakers yesterday in fact made all the difference in passage of every article, or failure of a few, that proves democracy is in each of our hands if we choose to show up.” Galligan wrote that he’s “ready to get to work to move forward so many projects and initiatives that were approved – yes, we have work to do and I am ‘all in.’”