TRURO — When the drawn-out legal battle over a modern mansion on Stephens Way ended in 2016 with a settlement giving the town $3 million, it was called “dirty money” and a capitulation to wealthy land owners.
Now, that money is going to pay the principal and interest on the town’s short-term loan for the $5.1-million purchase of the 70-acre Walsh property adjacent to the Truro Central School.
The settlement money is now titled the Dennis Family Gift Fund in the Truro budget, named for Thomas Dennis and Kathleen Westhead-Dennis, who agreed to pay more than $2.5 million over 10 years in exchange for an occupancy permit for a house that was built illegally. In addition, they paid $468,000 in fines and fees.
The town spent about $250,000 in legal fees resulting from the dispute.
The Dennis house has 8,333 square feet, with views of Cape Cod Bay, on nine acres. It was built in 2012. But because of litigation disputing the legality of the building permit, the house was not lived in for the first six years of its existence. It was, during that time, subject to a town-issued demolition order. The original owners, Donald and Andrea Kline, and subsequent owners Kit and Tom Dennis fought the town in court until the 2016 settlement.
When the select board announced the settlement, they said town meeting voters would determine the best use of the money. But so far, no specific purpose has been set, said Assistant Town Manager Kelly Clark.
Rather, payments have been made out of the Dennis fund for the Walsh borrowing: $116,847.22 was approved at the 2019 annual town meeting, and $124,550 was approved at the 2020 annual town meeting last September. A third payment of $275,750 is on the warrant for the 2021 annual town meeting in June. The first two amounts paid interest on the short-term borrowing. The third payment, if approved at town meeting, will cover interest and also pay down the principal for the Walsh property acquisition, Clark said.
The Dennises agreed to make 10 equal payments of about $250,000 a year through 2026, she said.
While the money could be used to pay down the Walsh loan every year, the select board doesn’t want to commit to that ahead of time. “The select board wants the freedom and flexibility in case something else comes up,” said Town Manager Darrin Tangeman.
What the town does with the Walsh property, purchased in 2019, is undecided. From 30 to 40 single-family homes could be built there, according to a preliminary study by the Truro Conservation Trust. Possible uses that have been proposed include recreation, open space, affordable housing, or some combination of those. The Walsh Property Community Planning Committee has met twice so far, and will on April 28 appoint a chair or co-chairs, said Stacie Nicole Smith, managing director of the Consensus Building Institute, the committee’s consultant.
When the town settled with the Dennises, neighborhood resident Joan Holt called the payoff “dirty money.” The Independent asked her if its use for the Walsh land had changed her view.
“No, I have not changed my mind that it was, in some ways, a corruption of the system,” she said. “But it is water under the bridge. My big issue is climate change. I don’t want to comment on how it gets used.”