Buying Land in Harwich

Harwich -Under a lowering sky, voters make their way toward the gym at sprawling Harwich High School for the second (and final) evening of town meeting, on Tuesday, May 4.

The night before, they had put 52 articles to bed and still gotten home in time to catch the 11 o’clock news. They had approved a ban on restaurant drive-through windows, outlawed motorized personal watercraft (such as jet skis) on the Herring River, and supported a computerized reservation system for the town-owned Cranberry Valley Golf Course. They had also given the school department a 7.4 percent budget increase.

Tonight’s focus, in this community of 12,000 near the elbow of Cape Cod, would be what Selectman Peter Luddy calls the “meat and potatoes” of town meeting – Harwich’s children and the elderly. Both groups are out in force. At the gym entrance, eighth-graders sell cookies to raise money for a rafting trip. Inside, the high school band warms up the assembling crowd with a medley of movie themes. Teenagers from a history class watch from the bleachers. Among the 259 voters on the floor, however, the dominant hair color is white.

Early in the evening the issue is land. Articles 56 and 57 propose borrowing against anticipated Land Bank funds to buy two properties – 6.63 acres of developable woodland near town wells for $198,000 and 34 acres near Island Pond for $500,000. Harwich’s expected Land Bank revenue will be approximately $586,000 in the first year. (The state’s promised 50- percent match will not arrive until after the start of the following fiscal year.) Paul Widegren, a real estate broker, issues a warning. “I’m disappointed,” he says, “that there are only two articles to buy land. Prices will be going through the roof. Whatever you don’t buy this year, you’ll pay a lot more for next year.” Harwich, he argues, should be borrowing more money – and buying more land.

As it is, the Island Pond property will be partially paid for by the nonprofit Harwich Conservation Trust. That organization moved quickly when it learned that the area of wooded uplands and kettleholes near the Cape Cod Rail Trail was going on the market. It has been engaged in discussions with the owners since last August, well before passage of the Land Bank. To lock in a price of $595,000 and fend off plans for 40 condominiums, the Trust agreed to deliver $175,000 by the end of this August. The plan was to come up with $95,000 of that amount in contributions and borrow the rest with assistance from the Compact of Cape Cod Trusts. Now, if details can be negotiated with the Trust and the land’s owners, the town will probably pay all but $95,000 (the Trust’s pledged contribution) and gain title to the land. The Trust will likely gain hold of a conservation restriction, further protecting the property. When the moderator takes the vote, both land purchases pass unanimously.

Moderator Michael Ford, a Clark Kent look-alike, works through the warrant with the rapid-fire style of an auctioneer. Only once does the brisk pace falter – when a school department request to fund a new reading series prompts a pensive gentleman near the front to ask the assembly at large, “What is good literature?” Into the gaping silence wades a school committee member with a whirlwind account of modern-day reading instruction, and the meeting continues.

The most discussed article of the evening turns on a gift. The directors of Pine Oaks Village, a 98-unit affordable housing development for senior citizens, have asked Harwich for approximately 12 acres of prime land beside the golf course on which to build another 65 units. Apart from the land, the project will cost the town nothing. Construction and rent subsidies will be supported by state and federal grants and loans. Pine Oaks has offered to pay a symbolic $50,000, plus annual contributions to the town in lieu of taxes. The new units will help Harwich, which has only a 2.65 percent affordable housing rate, get in line with the Cape’s 3.67 percent and closer to its goal of 10 percent.

Concerns are aired – about the unmet affordable housing needs of other groups, about the hidden costs of senior housing (more ambulance runs), about assurances that the complex will remain nonprofit, about where the new elderly residents will come from (Off-Cape? Mostly not.), and about lost income to the town. “I think the town of Harwich is very compassionate,” says Selectman Luddy, who supports the article. A two-thirds majority is required, and a standing count is taken. In the end, the article passes.

At 10:15, in good spirits, the crowd disperses into a driving rain.

Weymouth Update

Meet the Author
Weymouth’s town meeting voted in May to buy land for a memorial near the site of what is believed to be the nation’s earliest town meeting (see “Remembering Wessagussett,” CW, Spring, 1999). As it turned out, it was one of the town meeting’s final acts. A townwide vote on May 17 overwhelmingly approved a new charter that will create a mayor-and-town-council form of government, thus eliminating the board of selectmen and the representative town meeting.

A New Look at Town Meetings

A new book by Professor Joseph Zimmerman, a veteran observer of the New England town meeting, was published this spring. Zimmerman presents a favorable view of the role of citizens in local government, based on his surveys with town officers and citizens throughout the region.

The New England Town Meeting: Democracy in Action was published by Praeger, a division of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc. in Westport, Connecticut (203-226-3571). Zimmerman is a professor of political science at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at State University of New York in Albany.