Provincetown News and Information
By DOUG FRASER | Cape Cod Times
The Cape Cod National Seashore was intended to be a haven from development, a time capsule of what the Cape looked like in 1959, right down to the occasional cottage dotting the sweeping, virtually unbroken vistas.
But a chronic lack of funding has limited the park’s ability to enforce its own regulations, and most of the six towns within the park have zoning bylaws that are not sufficient to protect it. Park officials and others worry that expansion of the 589 existing private homes and the potential for development will spoil the look of the park, and that it may come to look more like today’s Cape than yesterday’s.
‘’I believe the Cape Cod National Seashore is at risk and the federal government has neither the will nor the vision to even try to do anything about it,’’ said Curtis Hartman, a Truro selectman and former planning board member. Hartman also works as a subcontractor for the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park system.
Hartman and others believe the park is in danger of becoming an enclave of rich homeowners who can afford to build bigger homes, or to subdivide their property and build new homes - even in the face of opposition from the National Park Service.
‘’I think there is a change happening, but I wouldn’t call it a lost cause,’’ said Seashore park planner Lauren McKean. ‘’There is a thrust for bigger houses and we probably need to address that.’’
There are 589 private homes within the 44,000 acres of the park, mostly in Eastham, Wellfleet and Truro. From the beginning, Congress established zoning guidelines that allowed just one home per lot and a maximum 50 percent expansion in total square footage of a home beyond what was on record in 1959. But they also allowed towns to pass their own zoning laws governing private properties within park boundaries. Of the six towns within the park, only Eastham adopted the 50 percent expansion maximum. The other towns did pass zoning bylaws that included 3-acre minimum lot sizes, but their regulations are generally less stringent than what the park service wanted.
‘’You could be setting yourself up for a lot of trophy homes,’’ said Rex Peterson, Wellfleet’s assistant town administrator.
In 2002, then park Superintendent Maria Burks realized the preserve was not sufficiently protected from the kind of development, including the expansion of cottages into year-round homes, that was altering the character of the land outside the national seashore’s boundaries. McKean said park officials thought it was better to work with the towns to tighten up zoning bylaws than to take properties by eminent domain when land owners did something the park believed was detrimental.
They advocated for the towns to follow Eastham’s lead and adopt the 50 percent home expansion limit, but towns have been reluctant to do so. For more than a year, town representatives and park officials have been meeting to talk about how to protect the park’s future, and how towns can help with zoning.
But town officials have argued they can’t do much more than they are already doing. State laws prohibit them from dictating the size of homes, and site plan reviews cannot legally require homeowners to be considerate of the scale of building in their neighborhood.
Instead of tightening up regulations, town officials are asking park managers for more leeway to develop inside the national seashore’s boundaries.
‘’The park would love for us to adopt (the 50 percent) rule, but I don’t see how we can be fair to someone who hasn’t touched his house and would like to expand it, and someone who has already doubled his home,’’ said William Worthington, chairman of the Truro Planning Board.
Peterson said with nearly 75 percent of Wellfleet either in the park, within the Audubon sanctuary or under conservation restrictions, the rural look of the town and park is already preserved. He said park officials should be more flexible and let go of the idea of a time capsule.
‘’Over 40 years, things have changed, like the housing market and the lack of affordable housing. I’m not saying let’s build high rises, but can’t your definition of improved housing (a single-family home per lot) be more lenient so that we can do affordable housing (on park property),’’ Peterson said.
The Eastham Planning Board went even further in asking town meeting this spring to rescind the 50 percent expansion bylaw, arguing it was unfair to homeowners with small homes on large lots.
Planning board members wanted to replace the 50 percent expansion rule with a site plan review process they felt would have kept ‘’McMansions’’ in check while allowing people to make their homes more comfortable.
But park officials refused to back the plan, and voters turned it down, leery of removing protections they felt had preserved the park thus far.
‘’What the planning boards have experienced from the park is intense pressure to do something to arrest this development. It just isn’t fair to put that kind of burden on a local board,’’ said Ansel Chaplin, a Truro Planning Board member who has summered and lived in town since 1943. Chaplin, a real estate attorney, contends the legislation that created the park also stipulated all private properties would, sooner or later, be bought by the federal government.
Park planner McKean said that is not true, and the park was created with the idea it would be ‘’a checkerboard’’ of undeveloped and developed property.
When property owners want to do something counter to park guidelines, park officials try to convince them to modify their plans with the threat of revoking their certificates of non-condemnation.
Banks and mortgage companies require these certificates when homeowners within the park are re-financing, or as part of a mortgage agreement when properties are re-sold.
Non-condemnation certificates serve as a guarantee the park will not take the property by eminent domain, which is the park’s ultimate enforcement tool.
Escalating property values have taken the edge off that threat, because it is now prohibitively costly for park officials to buy up private property within its boundaries. McKean said the park has received just $2.33 million toward land acquisition from the federal government since 1997.
The Park Service is required by law to pay fair market price based on comparison sales. With individual properties in the park going for millions of dollars apiece, land acquisition money doesn’t go far. And the threat of losing your non-condemnation certificate doesn’t carry much weight if you don’t need a bank to finance anything.
‘’People of wealth have been free to build whatever they want knowing that the Park Service simply doesn’t have the money to condemn their properties and they don’t need mortgages or ... banks,’’ Chaplin said.
Truro resident Richard Haskell is not one of the new arrivals. Haskell’s in-laws have owned a 6-acre lot with a farmhouse in their family since the house was built in 1842. He and his wife are both in their 80s and wanted their daughter and son-in-law living nearby to help them in their advanced age.
‘’They’re the bad guys as far as we’re concerned,’’ Haskell said of the Park Service.
‘’We have plenty of legitimacy to do this, and we don’t think it will interfere with the park at all.’’
Haskell’s 6 acres satisfied even the large, 3-acre minimum lot size Truro requires for a buildable lot within park boundaries.
Two weeks ago, the planning board went against the wishes of park officials in allowing Haskell to subdivide his property to build another home on the new lot. That runs counter to the most fundamental of park regulations - established when the park was created in 1961 - that prohibited any new homes being built after the 1959 cut-off date established by Congress. At least 100 other homes have been condemned and taken by the park over the past 20 years for doing the same thing. But that was before land prices went through the roof.
The planning board ruling was a warning bell to many, especially when at least 23 properties within the park have enough acreage to subdivide, including three with more than 20 acres.
Hartman is particularly concerned about the rulings’ impact on a campground near Head of the Meadow beach in North Truro that has already been subdivided.
Although the owners, the Courier family, want the property to remain a campground, some believe the Haskell decision has opened the door to possible development. Park officials have been trying to purchase the campground, but can’t meet the $6.1 million asking price. They are trying to work through a private organization that raises money to purchase land for parks.
McKean said there are a dozen homes on a list of properties that have had their certificates of non-condemnation revoked, but haven’t yet been taken by the park. She said there are more property owners who haven’t even bothered to apply for the certificate because they know they will not get it.
Eastham building inspector Frank DeFelice could only marvel at another unfairness as the Eastham Planning Board was forced to reject a request for a 400-square-foot addition to an 800-square-foot cottage to make it more livable, while allowing more than 700 square feet to be added to a nearly 3,000-square-foot home as part of a renovation.
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The homeowner went on to list it for sale at more than $2.8 million.
‘’There are these people who can afford to build really atrocious buildings,’’ said Worthington, who added local officials are helpless to prevent McMansions from springing up all over the park, other than to appeal to the sensibilities of homeowners.
‘’We try to do what we can,’’ he said.
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