DCR cottage leases face quicker demise

Lambert seeks to phase out program

massachusetts officials are vowing to phase out a controversial program that has offered cheap, virtually permanent permits for state park land to private citizens for summer cottages.

After years of complaints and a series of critical audits over several decades, the state in 2006 stopped allowing permit-holders to pass their cottages along to their heirs or sell them. The move meant the cottage program would eventually expire and the property would return to the state’s control. Ten of the 180 cottages have already reverted to the state.

Now Ed Lambert, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, wants to phase out the rental program more quickly. He says some cottage permits will be terminated to expand recreational opportunities at the parks. Other permits may be revoked to restore the natural ecology or because of repeated building and electrical code violations.

 “We’re going to be aggressive,” Lambert says. “We’re not looking to nitpick and use other things as an excuse. But we do think that the items that we are looking at are valid reasons not to extend permits.” Still, the former Fall River mayor concedes it might take several decades to end the program.

There are 179 private cottages on public land: 143 are located around five ponds at Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, 26 are on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor, and 10 are on Ashmere Lake in Hinsdale. 

The annual rents for the properties range from $400 (for land without access to electricity or running water) to $3,800 (for plots with both amenities). The structures themselves are owned by the tenants, but DCR owns the land on which the cottages sit. Twelve of the cottage owners live out of state, as far away as Arizona.

The cottage rents have not increased since 2002, and Lambert says he has no plans to raise them. But critics of the program say increases are in order. “These summer cottages are located on some very prime pieces of land near ponds and bodies of water,” says Henry Lee, the chairman of DCR’s Stewardship Council and director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It seems to me that with the current budgetary constraints, we should be charging fair market value and not these below-market rates.”

The rental program began in 1919 after fires swept through the Myles Standish State Forest, leaving much of the area barren. Todd LaFleur, who oversaw the DCR leasing program until his retirement in 2008, says state officials wanted to bring people back to the forest so they started renting land for campsites. “Those campsites eventually became tents on platforms, then cottages, and today some are substantial homes,” he says. No state law, rule, or regulation authorizes the cottage program.

James Nelson, the president of the camp owners association for Fearing Pond in Myles Standish State Forest, says it is unfair for the state to essentially take away cottages that renters have built. “But our arguments fall on deaf ears,” he says. “The people at DCR lie to us and say one thing and do another.”

 Nelson also says cottage owners help out the state by keeping their eyes on the forest and serving as first responders to boating and other accidents. But Lee, of the DCR Stewardship Council, says Nelson’s argument doesn’t pass the “laugh test.”

“If you allow that kind of thinking, then someone could say something like, ‘I shouldn’t have to pay taxes if I set up a neighborhood crime watch.’  By that argument, because I volunteer on the DCR Stewardship Council, I should pay 10 percent less in taxes,” he says.

Lambert says he appreciates any help cottage owners provide to DCR and visitors to the area, but still feels it’s time for the program to come to an end.

“This is a program that is a vestige of different era,” Lambert says.  “It was established back in 1910 or so.  It may have had a good and significant policy purpose then.  But I think that the program’s original purpose has long since passed.”

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Sharl Heller, president of the Friends of Myles Standish State Forest, a group with two cottage owners on its board, agrees with Lambert, although she says she is not speaking for the organization. “It may get me lynched at the next board meeting to say it, but the forests are public properties and it is not in the best interest of the general public for these cottage owners to have privileges beyond what others have,” she says.