TRURO — A local lobsterman feels vindicated after a judge reversed two conditions that the Truro Planning Board had imposed on his building proposal.
Orleans District Court Judge Robert Welsh III agreed with Christopher and Heidi Townsend, who sought permission to build a 30-by-36-foot barn with an upstairs 1,000-square-foot accessory dwelling unit at their 41 Highland Road property. Townsend intends to use the accessary dwelling unit to house his lobster boat mate.
The planning board approved his request but with a condition that any shower or bathtub be on the second floor. The planning board also required Townsend to get a letter of approval from the Cape Cod National Seashore, since the property is in the Seashore.
Welsh ruled that both conditions were outside the board’s authority.
“The location of bathing facilities are not specified in the ADU [Accessory Dwelling Unit] bylaw and have no connection to the stated purpose of the bylaw,” Welsh wrote in his summary judgment on Nov. 26. “Truro improperly delegated permit approval authority to the United States. Zoning is inherently a local concern.”
The decision has re-ignited an ongoing complaint that Truro’s planning board, which is among the few that are elected on the Cape, is particularly hostile to development.
Addressing the condition requiring approval from the Seashore, the town’s own attorney, Jonathan Silverstein, wrote a letter to Town Manager Rae Ann Palmer advising that it was unnecessary for this ADU.
The planning board imposed the condition anyway. So when Townsend challenged the conditions in court, the select board voted not to defend the decision.
“It was a weak case for the town,” said Selectman Robert Weinstein. “We chose not to have town counsel defend the planning board.”
Townsend said he was happy with the judge’s ruling, but that battling the planning board added legal fees for his attorney, Ben Zehnder, to the expense of paying rent for his employee for an extra season. He had hoped to begin construction in December 2018, but the permitting process with the planning board lasted all winter and he could not finish it in time for summer.
Townsend said that the planning board’s decisions show a pattern of discouraging year-round businesses and housing.
“They are extremely difficult, and they are clearly working against everyone’s wants and needs,” Townsend said. “I’m very passionate about the Outer Cape, and I want it to be easier for people who work for a living like myself.”
“The planning board was doing the best it could to protect the town and the Seashore,” said Steve Sollog, its chair. “We’re citizens. I’m not going to represent a position or opinion, because as a member of the planning board, I’m representing the town. We made our decision. The town made its decision. The court made its decision, and we’re all going to move on.”
Weinstein agreed with Townsend, noting that recent bylaw changes to promote year-round housing were brought to town meeting by petitioners and were opposed by the planning board. These included the bylaw that relaxed restrictions on accessory dwelling units in 2017 and the change to allow cottage colonies to be converted for year-round use in 2018.
“Their record concerns me,” Weinstein said.
Karen Tosh, a planning board member since 2017, said she disagrees that her board is against affordable housing. Since the ADU bylaw passed, all six ADU applications that have come before the board have been approved.
But, she added, the planning board has been hampered by a lack of consistent professional help. In three years there have been seven town planners, she said. This has made reviews of projects lengthy and made it more difficult for them to bring bylaws to town meeting.
Unlike in Provincetown, Wellfleet, and Eastham, Truro’s planning board is elected, which, Weinstein said, may be part of the problem. Nine out of the 15 Cape towns appoint planning board members, said Robert Panessiti, chair of the Truro Charter Review Committee and a member of the Truro Finance Committee for 18 years.
“[The planning board] should be on the same page, with the same priorities, as the select board,” Weinstein said. No one wants to compete for those seats, he added, so most people get on the board unopposed or as write-in candidates.
Panessiti said that current planning board members blatantly oppose affordable housing measures. He said the charter committee hasn’t decided whether to recommend changing the planning board from elected to appointed. But, he added, if the current planning board members were to stay on, then “absolutely. They should all be gone,” he said.
“Sometimes the loudest voices are not the most well informed,” Tosh said in response to the criticism. An elected planning board is pure democracy and best represents the town, Tosh said. If people don’t like them, they should use the ballot box.