EASTHAM — At town meeting this Saturday, voters will consider eight updates to Eastham’s residential zoning rules. Articles 7A through 7H center on a plan to regulate the size and massing of redeveloped houses. There are also measures to regulate clear-cutting of trees, protect vegetation at the edges of lots, and locate pools and pickleball courts farther back from lot lines.
These updates come on the heels of five zoning amendments adopted at last year’s town meeting to permit denser and more affordable housing. Those measures, which included looser rules for duplexes, a path to converting motel properties to housing, and a measure that encouraged “cluster development” with open space instead of a grid pattern, all passed almost unanimously.
One volunteer committee, the Eastham Task Force on Residential Zoning, has proposed all these changes. Appointed by the select board in early 2021, the group has been attempting to systematically bring Eastham’s zoning codes, which mostly date to 1988, into line with its current values.
“When I started on the select board, there was an attitude of ‘Well, this is how we’ve always done it,’ ” said Jamie Demetri, who is now the board’s chair. “It takes a lot of progressive brains in the same room to break that cycle.
“I think it’s extremely naive, especially after Covid, to look at Cape Cod and say that bylaws and residential practices from the ’80s still apply today,” Demetri continued. “That’s how we’re going to lose everything about Cape Cod that brings people here.”
So far, the task force has focused on two broad themes: permitting construction that might be more affordable and putting limits on extremely large homes that do not fit the historical development patterns of Eastham, said task force chair Mary Nee. Those goals came from the town’s five-year strategic plan and Housing Production Plan, Nee said.
“It required us to step back from any sort of personal perspective and say, if this is the town’s vision, how do we support that?” Nee said.
The committee focused on gathering data to ground their conclusions. On house size and mass, for example, the committee and its town staff liaison, Community Development Director Paul Lagg, gathered data on the size of houses relative to their underlying lots over time.
“Up until 2021, you saw site coverage ranging from 11 to 15 percent,” Nee said. “And then, starting in the pandemic, we were seeing them go up to 20, 25 percent. We’ve seen 29 percent on one lot. And there were no upper-end guardrails on the limit.”
These kinds of high-coverage properties represent just 5 percent of the town’s lots right now, according to Nee. “If we’re going to look at this issue, this is the moment to do it,” she said, “when we still have 95 percent of the town represented by what we call traditional mass and scale.”
Because 60 percent of Eastham’s housing stock predates World War II, Nee said, “Redevelopment is going to physically need to happen.” The task force has tried to leave room for growth, she said, while creating upper limits.
Eastham is unusually rich in small houses on small lots, Nee said, a development pattern that the 1988 bylaws had tried to halt by imposing a one-acre minimum lot size on new homes and a two-acre minimum lot size for duplexes.
Now, the town’s vision has led the task force to encourage the relatively small appearance of homes from the street.
“We were counting, in the size calculation, a finished basement,” Nee said. “If we’re putting caps on the mass and scale that you see, why would we tell someone a finished basement uses up their allowable growth if you don’t see it?”
Article 7A on the town meeting warrant would remove basements from the site area calculation.
The Task Force also looked at short-term rental rules and found that the town’s health department had a long-standing rental registration program that could easily detect any new trends, Nee said.
Following a number of national news stories about major real estate firms buying properties in tourist areas for rental income, Nee said her group dug into the board of health’s records and found that trend is not affecting Eastham yet. “We’re recommending it just be something they look at annually — and know they have a rental cap as a tool in their back pocket,” Nee said.
For two winters now, the task force has met weekly from October through February to finish its work before town meeting, Nee said. Both Nee and Demetri saluted Lagg for what they called an immense amount of work.
“It’s time well spent, from my perspective,” Lagg said. “I’d rather work and be proactive and get ahead of things than spend time reacting to complaints or negative issues that arise.”
“I think it’s the first deep dive we are seeing on the Lower and Outer Cape,” Demetri said, “to see if we can be more responsible and progressive.” It could be “a starting point that other towns, I hope, follow suit with,” she added.