Is Orleans Ready For Town Meeting? Officials Hope So

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Town Meeting , Orleans news , Affordable housing , rentals

Orleans voters will tackle 75 articles between the spring annual and special town meetings set for May 8 in the gymnasium of Nauset Regional Middle School. FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS – There are 66 articles in the warrant for Monday's annual town meeting, followed by an additional nine to be considered in a special town meeting. With such a heavy slate, select board members will head into the Nauset Regional Middle School gymnasium with one overarching question.

Are voters ready, and are town officials ready to defend the articles?

With approximately $11 million in debt exclusion and override requests, proposed bylaw and charter changes, school and town budgets for the coming fiscal year and various other projects and initiatives set to go before voters, questions were raised at the select board's April 19 meeting as to whether officials are ready to go to bat for the articles.

Specifically, Select Board member Mark Mathison expressed urgency in moving a proposed rental registration bylaw past the finish line Monday. The bylaw aims to require property owners to register their properties annually with the town in order to rent them both short-term and year round.

This is the town's second attempt at passing such a bylaw, as an article seeking to require registration for all short-term rentals in town failed to pass at the special town meeting in October.

Now the board hopes that a broader bylaw pertaining to all rentals in town will be met more favorably by voters. But Mathison said he had "real concerns" about the town's ability to explain to voters the intentions behind the bylaw, which he said is designed to ensure that properties are being rented safely.

Voters rejected the bylaw the first time around in October, with some arguing that it infringes on people's right to rent their properties. Others pointed to a lack of clarity regarding how the bylaw would be enforced, and still others felt the bylaw unfairly singled out owners of short-term rentals.

Mathison said April 19 that he saw the potential for the same arguments to resurface on town meeting floor, and that the town needs to take every measure it can to quell voters' concerns.

"There's too many people out there that are trying to make perfect the enemy of good, to use a cliche, and they're using these little reasons to vote against it," he said. "So I want to eliminate as many of those little reasons as we can. I want to have a clear and easily articulated process."

The registration process would require property owners to fill out a form detailing how many bedrooms are in the property, as well as the number of working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. It also spells out a system for fining property owners found in violation of the bylaw (a written warning will be issued for a first offense, followed by a $100 fine for a second offense and a $200 fine for third and subsequent offenses).

But Mathison's follow-up questions April 19 were many. What constitutes a first offense? How can you tell if there's been a violation? Who will do inspections?

The Orleans Fire Department would be charged with enforcing the bylaw. But rather than inspecting every rental in town, Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said the department will only respond to properties where complaints have been issued. This makes the enforcement piece more manageable without having to worry about adding staff to allow for it.

Reed also noted that the revised bylaw does not include a registration fee.

In a follow up conversation last week, Reed said the hope is the new bylaw will help make rental activity "more visible" in town without alienating property owners.

"If last year was an overreach, what is the most benign way to do it?" she said.

Other select board members similarly advocated for more information ahead of town meeting on other articles. For board member Mefford Runyon, that includes an article seeking to allot an additional $225,000 annually to the affordable housing trust fund to further efforts to create affordable housing in town.

In 2018, town meeting voters passed an article to annually "raise and appropriate" $75,000 to help fund the trust board's efforts. But with the median cost of a single-family home on Cape Cod now over half a million dollars, town officials argue that the additional funding is needed to properly support the trust.

A separate article also seeks permission for the town to petition the state legislature to expand the trust fund board's scope of work by allowing the trust to support housing for residents who earn more than 100 percent of the area median income in Barnstable County.

"Passage of this home rule petition would expand the trust's toolbox," language in the article reads. "It does not require any local funding, but it would allow the trust to work with private donors to help create this much needed housing."

The warrant also includes an article to adopt a $44.5 million operating budget for fiscal year 2024, which is a $3 million increase over the current fiscal year. There are also eight overrides slated in the warrant totalling $11.2 million.

Reed said the town's narrow levy capacity, combined with the cost of funding the new town budget and the increase to the town's share of the Nauset Public Schools budget, "forced some of the [warrant articles] to be outside of the operational budget." But she said the warrant's heft is symbolic of the period of change Orleans finds itself in, as well as the effort officials are putting in to find creative solutions to various town needs.

"I think what [the warrant] reflects is the ambitions of local government rather than the spending of local government," she said.

And while it takes considerable work to pull together a 75-article warrant on a normal year, Reed said more of the work has fallen on staff this season to bring the spring session together. Interim Town Administrator Charles Sumner has worked closely with department heads and town staff to get things ready for Monday during what has been a period of transition for the town.

"People are rowing like crazy, and we're producing a warrant that's qualitatively different," Reed said.

The annual and special town meetings will kick off at 6 p.m. Monday in the Nauset Regional Middle School gymnasium. Reed said she's hopeful that the meetings will conclude in one night, and said she believes town officials are ready to answer voters' questions as best as possible if they arise. Flyers will be handed out as people enter the gymnasium explaining some articles, while the town website includes informational videos explaining a number of the articles.

"Because we bothered with all of this preparation, shame on us if we can't answer their questions," she said.

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com