WELLFLEET — The conservation commission has struggled in recent months to do its work with fewer than a full complement of seven members. According to interviews with several current commissioners, with some being out of town for extended periods and some members having to recuse themselves because of potential conflicts it has been difficult to assemble a quorum. The commission needs four people in order to meet. And decisions require a majority of four.
Commissioners Barbara Brennessel and John Portnoy have both taken long out-of-town trips this winter. Commissioner Michael Fisher and former Commissioner Lauren McKean have had to recuse themselves from some cases, Fisher because he is on the board of the Wellfleet Conservation Trust and McKean because she works for the Cape Cod National Seashore; both organizations control properties that have been subjects of commission action.
“If someone has to recuse because of a conflict, we can’t move projects forward or deny them,” said Brennessel. “That has happened on a number of occasions.”
The conservation commission’s inability to maintain a full roster has a variety of causes.
McKean’s conflicts were so extensive that she ultimately had to resign from the group, according to her colleague John Cumbler. Trudy Vermehren, who served on the commission while running her own landscaping business, stepped down in June 2018 after opening a cafe in town, the Fox and Crow. The work load of being on the commission while running a restaurant was just too much, she said.
This winter, with the cafe business at a slower pace, Vermehren agreed to accept a two-month appointment to the commission to help it plow through a backlog of cases.
She named another reason why recruiting new members is hard.
“It’s a controversial board to be on,” Vermehren said. “You get a lot of pushback from people. Not everybody understands the reason the conservation commission is even there. It’s a difficult position to be in when you have to argue for the environment versus the market value of a home. As Americans, we have property rights. If you own property, people think you can do whatever you want with it.”
“A lot of people don’t like what we say,” Cumbler said. “You have to be willing to have people really dislike you. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Barbara Brennessel pointed out that younger townspeople may be reluctant to serve on the commission because of the need for both evening meetings and daytime site visits. “It’s hard if you have a job and family to go to site visits in the daytime,” she said. “We might want to think about doing site visits on the weekend.”
Cumbler noted that questions of conflict and recusal would likely arise when permitting for the Herring River Restoration Project comes before the group.
“There are lots of issues,” he said. “Two members of the commission are on the Friends of Herring River board, one is a consultant to the project, I’m technically an abutter to phase two of the project, and the Conservation Trust is an abutter. Only one person is not in some way involved.”
Last year’s annual town meeting approved a charter revision adding two alternate members to the conservation commission to help avoid these problems. But no alternates have been appointed.
“There are no alternate members on these boards,” wrote administrative clerk Jeanne Maclaughlan in an email, “because there are no volunteers.”