WELLFLEET — Requests to move shoreline houses back from coastal banks to protect them a little longer from erosion have become commonplace here. They can cause controversy with neighbors who say they are losing ocean views and privacy.
In the latest request, a homeowner on Ridgeway Road has asked the zoning board of appeals for a special permit and variance to allow her to move her three-bedroom house to a spot within two feet of the property line.
Both the Cape Cod National Seashore, where the property is located, and an abutter have raised concerns about the proposal. The ZBA wasn’t happy with the plans either, at least not as initially submitted by the owner’s attorney, Ben Zehnder, at a late August hearing. Because a proposed basement wasn’t mentioned in the narrative, the board directed him to return on Oct. 12 with an accurate layout and a more complete narrative.
In a straw poll at the second hearing, all five ZBA members said they were inclined to approve the request, but the board continued its deliberations to Oct. 27.
Susan Behan purchased the house and cottage at 265 Ridgeway Road for $1.2 million in 2012. A year later, she secured a permit to relocate another cottage she owned on adjacent land onto the property, where it was combined with the existing cottage.
Behan now wants to move the main house back and turn it 90 degrees. While the house is currently on cinder blocks, Behan is looking to put in a concrete foundation and add a basement for utilities and storage.
Behan’s land borders Cliff Road, a “paper road” that appears on plans but was never built. Currently that land is tree-covered, and the trees separate Behan’s land from neighbors Karen and Kristofer Elbing’s property at 255 Ridgeway Road.
This is not the first disagreement between Behan and the Elbings. The Elbings appealed the ZBA’s approval of the 2013 cottage move. In 2015, the parties reached a settlement in which Behan agreed to forgo certain improvements and eliminate a cupola from her plans.
Behan’s property is at the end of Ridgeway Road. She lives in the cottage there, she said, while relatives live in the main house. The National Seashore owns the land just south of Behan on the bluff. Seashore planner Lauren McKean expressed concern over Behan’s encroachment onto Seashore property.
“We are concerned about the intensity of use issues associated with the property,” McKean wrote to the ZBA, “and it is a concern how much of this property’s activity will be displaced due to erosion over time…. We request marked delineation of the NPS land and relocation of the split-rail fence to the property be a condition of any approval, so that as the lot size diminishes due to coastal erosion, we can ensure no encroachment on the park land.”
The Elbings’ attorney, Valerie Moore, urged the board not to grant the variance and special permit. Moving the cottage in 2013 partially obstructed the Elbings’ ocean view, and moving the house to the proposed location would further block it, Moore said.
Behan’s plan will also require the removal of several trees, said Moore. “The trees have provided a buffer for noise and light,” she said, adding that cutting timber is not allowed in the Seashore, and it worsens erosion.
Karen Elbing offered another argument. “It’s moving approximately 100 feet closer to our home,” she said. “Between our home and the dwelling are about 120 feet of densely packed trees that provide privacy. That will go down to 25 feet at best.”
Zehnder said the foundation would be set deeper in the ground and a roof deck would be removed from the plan to address the Elbings’ complaints. He conceded that the plan still requires the removal of some vegetation that currently separates the properties. But, he said, “As far as view, the house won’t be any higher than the existing vegetation is now.”
Concerned about the basement becoming living space rather than just for storage space, ZBA members discussed limiting it to one access. There was no direct basement access from outside on the plan, said member Trevor Pontbriand, which would leave the only access from inside the house.
A zoning variance may be granted when a hardship is created by the shape, topography, or other physical characteristics of the lot. Zehnder argued that Behan would lose the ability to use one of her houses due to coastal erosion. “Variances are safety valves that allow the board to grant relief in specific circumstances,” Zehnder said. “I think this is a classic case for a variance. I’m sure 25 years from now, when erosion encroaches, the Elbings will be before this board.”
But Moore argued there was no hardship. “They’re not losing their primary residence, and they purchased it knowing about erosion,” she said.
When Moore pointed out that the house is currently 60 feet from the edge of the bluff and therefore not in immediate danger, Zehnder said Behan is trying to be proactive. “You can lose 35 feet in a storm,” he said.