EASTHAM — Neighbors are opposed to a plan to tear down a house overlooking Boat Meadow marsh and replace it with one with more than double the existing living space because it threatens to change the scale of the neighborhood.
To go forward, the owners of the property at 715 Bridge Road need approval under a town bylaw that requires the planning board to review the site plan for any structure of more than 3,000 square feet. They went before that board on Nov. 16 and will appear again on Dec. 21. John Sheehan and Sara Zobel of New York City and Mashpee would like to build a 4,355-square-foot house and a 1,321-square-foot garage with an upstairs apartment.
The existing 2,437-square-foot house on the property was owned from 1994 to 2017 by Mary Lou Petitt, who was instrumental founding Habitat for Humanity of Cape Cod, the Community Development Partnership, and the Homeless Prevention Council, according to her obituary. The new owners purchased the house in 2018, a year after her death.
Neighbors wrote eight letters to the planning board focused on the size of the proposed house.
“We feel it is out of character with the sensitive marshland,” wrote Chris Szwedo of 15 Bayview Road.
Existing houses in the Boat Meadow marsh area range from 2,100 to 3,100 square feet, Town Planner Paul Lagg told the board on Nov. 16.
Neighbors say the proposed house will not just stick out but will also change the neighborhood’s scale, ushering in planning board approval of more grand structures.
“This is not about this single house; it is about the precedent and changes to this neighborhood,” James Arnold, an architect who lives at 725 Bridge Road, told the Independent. “If you imagine all the houses that size all around the marsh, that is a different view. Is that what we want to do with the town?”
Arnold cited the town’s zoning bylaws, which state the purpose of the planning board’s site plan approval process is to encourage “construction that is reasonably sensitive to the scale, size and massing of buildings.”
Arnold said he was shocked when planning board Chair Dan Coppelman said on Nov. 16 that bigger houses are the way of the future and not something that the planning board can legally stop.
Coppelman, a retired construction engineer who worked on residential projects in Westchester County, N.Y. before moving full-time to Eastham, said, “Real estate is not static. It is fluid, dynamic; today you see bigger houses, taller ceilings, and bigger windows.”
He is right about that. The Cape Cod Commission found that by the first decade of the 2000s median single-family home size here had doubled since the 1950s, from 1,200 square feet to 2,400 square feet.
“The main issue to me is ‘does it meet zoning?’ ” Coppelman said. It does. “Candidly, when something meets zoning, we have a difficult time saying it should not be there because it is bigger than the guy’s next door.”
Coppelman later told the Independent that not everyone on the planning board feels the same way about big houses. Board member Jim Kivlehan said during the Nov. 16 meeting, “This is a big house that will change this area.”
Kivlehan said approval of 5,676 square feet of living space sets a new threshold and “someone will come in in two years looking for 6,000 square feet.”
Board member William Craig saw it another way. He said if you look at the footprint of the proposed building, it is not that much larger than the current home. Planning departments use the square footage of a dwelling’s livable space to determine the size, so basements and second-floor garage apartments are counted even if they don’t take up that much more land.
To improve the environmental impact of the house, the new owners have agreed to put in an innovative alternative septic system to reduce nitrogen pollution to the bay.
Sheehan and Zobel’s architect, Sibel Asantugrul of S.A. Architecture in Orleans, said were it not for the finished basement and garage, the new Bridge Road house would have only 3,305 square feet.
Arnold and Coppelman agree on one thing: the planning board’s ruling in cases of size and scale come down to a subjective call.
There is nothing in the zoning bylaws that defines “big,” Coppelman said.
“The planning board deals with the intangibles,” Arnold said.
The Eastham Task Force on Residential Zoning and Regulation is considering doing what Truro and Wellfleet have done, which is to set a size limit on houses. In 2018, Truro town meeting voters passed a 3,600-square-foot limit for a house on a minimum-size lot of 33,750 square feet (that is, .775 acre), with allowances to go larger on a larger lot. Wellfleet limits the total amount of living space on any lot size, including any outbuildings, to 3,600 square feet. But Wellfleet’s bylaw applies only to houses in the Cape Cod National Seashore.
“We are batting around the idea of not necessarily a hard number but a number based on lot coverage, which seems fairer when you have a large lot,” said Jeff Cusack, a member of the Eastham task force. “We are still gathering data,” he said, and a size limit bylaw probably won’t be ready for town meeting in 2023.