Harwich OK's Six Ponds Land Acquisition; Town Meeting Backs CPC Affordable Housing Funds

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Town Meeting

Former state senator Dan Wolf was a strong voice in support of the town funding a conservation restriction on 75 acres in the Six Ponds Special District in Monday’s annual town meeting session. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – Voters made a major commitment to conservation and passive recreation on the first night of annual town meeting Monday, approving $950,000 in Community Preservation Act funds to purchase a conservation restriction on 75 acres in the Six Ponds Special District.

“This is the largest remaining undeveloped tract on the Lower Cape,” Harwich Conservation Trust Executive Director Michael Lach said at the meeting. The property is off Spruce Road in the Six Ponds District of Critical Planning Concern, and its acquisition will protect the water quality around Aunt Edies, Cornelius and Walker ponds, he said. There are also walking trails that connect to the 240-acre Hawksnest State Park.  

The conservation restriction purchase has the support of the board of selectmen, finance committee and the community preservation committee. With the approval of the article, Lach said, the trust will have to raise $2,050,000 by the end of December to complete the purchase. 

There is a good chance the town would qualify for a state Land Acquisition for Natural Diversity grant of up to $400,000 to assist with the purchase, he said. If the grant is approved, the amount of the award would be returned to the town’s CPA fund, and the state Division of Conservation Services and the town would hold the conservation restriction.

Thane Welsh took issue with the purchase of conservation land by the town every year, saying doing so takes the land off the tax rolls and the town has less money due to the loss of tax revenues. The town needs these properties on the tax rolls, he said.

“What you don’t understand is you’re purchasing that land every year after that because the land comes off the tax rolls,” Welsh said.

Former state senator Dan Wolf said he and his wife lived in Chatham in 1986 and could not afford it, so they made the choice to come to the blue-collar alternative, Harwich. Wolf said his three daughters were raised in town, and as they grew their two most important places were the Bell’s Neck Conservation Area and the Six Ponds District of Critical Planning Concern.

“Not a single time when walking with us through those woods did one of them look up at us and say dad or mom, how much real estate tax money was given up to buy this conservation area,” Wolf said. “Infrastructure and the cost of developing and maintaining that land in the long run would cost more than the real estate value brought in.”

Housing Authority Chair Elizabeth Harder said the town needs housing, but this is not the right place for it. The town also needs clean and safe drinking water, she said.

“What would the Cape be without the National Seashore?” Sandy McLardy said. “Preserving the land will make a difference for the Cape.”

Daryl Routhier wanted to know if hunting would be allowed in this conservation area. Lach said it would be owned by the trust, and the goal will be to establish walking trails “and more safe ways to get outside.” Lach said there are 300 acres in and around Hawksnest State Park where hunting is allowed.

Opportunities like this do not come along often, said Margo Fenn. It's possible to walk the lands for two to three hours without running into civilization, she added.

Voters unanimously approved the use of $950,000 in CPA funds for the conservation restriction.

There was very little discussion on the town budget. Voters approved a municipal operating budget of $42,188,893, a 6.3 percent increase, and a total town budget of $73,584,679, up 5.4 percent. There was a bit of discussion about two new positions, a cultural center director and a housing advocate to boost affordable housing. The discussions focused more on why the new positions were not addressed through warrant articles instead of being placed in the town budget. In the end, the positions were approved.

Voters unanimously approved an amendment to the Monomoy Regional School District agreement crafted to address the inequity in elementary school student costs between Harwich and Chatham. It cost $7,000 per student more to educate students in Chatham than in Harwich, because of the smaller enrollment in the Chatham school. The amendment will allow each of the towns to absorb the cost of its elementary school. Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill said approval of the amendment will save Harwich taxpayers $700,000.

There were several questions about the use of CPA funds for affordable housing. The community preservation committee endorsed $500,000 for the affordable housing trust.

Selectman Donald Howell, a member of the trust, explained that trust funds were used to purchase close to 14 acres of the former Jimmy Marceline property, and the trust will need additional funds when it starts to develop the property, even if it works with developers.    

Prompted by a question from Leo Cakounes, Finance Director Carol Coppola said the trust currently has $416,901 in its account. 

“We need a bucket of money to pursue these opportunities,” Howell said. “We have to have a buildup of funds to make things happen.”

Voters approved the housing funding request.

Questions were also raised about the town providing $100,000 for the Penrose LLC affordable housing project in Orleans. The proposal calls for the development of 62 units of housing in the former Cape Cod Five Bank headquarters, including 52 affordable units and 10 workforce units.

Sharon Foster expressed concern that Harwich money was going to Orleans when it is needed in Harwich. She said the money should be used for food, clothing and shelter for local residents. Throughout the evening Foster questioned expenditures, querying as to whether they are for critical needs for the town. She cited the impacts of expenditures that are challenging her ability to pay taxes within her budget.

“This is an issue that knows no town boundaries,” former selectman Ed McManus said of the affordable housing crisis. The town should take any steps possible to help its neighbors, he said. In the future, he would expect fellow towns to help Harwich when developing affordable housing.

“It’s a regional issue,” Selectman Mary Anderson agreed, urging voters to rely on the judgment of the community preservation committee in its recommendation. Anderson said Harwich does not have an affordable housing project this far along.

CPC member Kathy Green said the committee supported the request, adding that a person might work in Harwich but may not live in town. Votes approved the funds for the Orleans project.

Town meeting on Monday night also approved a charter amendment changing the name of the town’s executive board from the board of selectmen to select board. Once the change is approved by the Attorney General’s Office it will come back next year for a vote on a town ballot before being implemented.

Town meeting acted on 41 of the 58 articles in the first session on Monday.