WELLFLEET — For seven weeks, a proposed exception to the Wellfleet Shellfish Regulations’ domicile requirement has pinballed from the shellfish advisory board (SAB) to the select board and back. But discussing it for the third time, the SAB unanimously recommended on May 5 to approve the most recent version of the exception.
Once Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta formally requests a public hearing, the change will come before the select board for what its supporters hope will be the final time.
As the rules now stand, only “domiciled” residents are eligible for commercial shellfish permits or licenses, both for farms and wild harvesting. To qualify as domiciled, permit-seekers must demonstrate that they have lived within town borders for a year, and that Wellfleet remains their legal home. If, for whatever reason, a permit-holder ceases to be a domiciled resident — by moving outside the town’s strict borders — section 6.1.1 of the shellfishing policy and regulations calls for his or her commercial permit to be revoked.
Advocates for changing the rules say that what began in Wellfleet as an affordable housing problem has evolved into a full-blown crisis. “Finding a reasonable place to live,” said select board member Ryan Curley, who proposed the last rounds of edits, “has just gotten harder and harder.”
Long-term rental landlords are moving back into their homes, driving out young shellfishing tenants, said SAB alternate Damian Parkington. And, said SAB vice chair Thomas Siggia, “Do the arithmetic: houses here are selling for millions of dollars. You can’t afford a house in Wellfleet on a shellfisherman’s earnings. You just can’t.”
The housing crisis and the domicile requirement, then, combined to pose what Harry Terkanian called at an April 27 select board meeting a “doubly devastating” threat. For a shellfisherman, losing a lease would mean losing a livelihood as well. And moving out of town temporarily would require a restart of the one-year domicile clock. That would be “a serious blow to anyone,” said Siggia, “especially to young adults with children.”
Discussion of a change to the domicile requirement began this spring with select board member Helen Miranda Wilson, who took pains to remind the audience at every opportunity that she’d been thinking about the issue for a decade. Wilson’s proposed amendment made it through the SAB and onto the select board’s April 27 agenda — but when he received his meeting packet, Curley decided it needed some tweaks.
Wilson’s version of the exception established a loophole for “those who have previously held a commercial permit for at least two years, and who have temporarily lost housing in Wellfleet for reasons clearly beyond their control (such as a fire or a lease not being renewed) as verified by the shellfish constable.” If domiciled residency was not resumed within 18 months, the holder would lose his permit.
“It was fine,” said Curley. “But 18 months is a long time to go without having confirmation of someone’s intention to return to town. Somebody could move out of town with no intention to return, and still qualify for a residential exemption.”
Curley’s version included what he called “a guardrail.”
When it comes to housing in Wellfleet, “you really have to be on top of it,” Curley said. “I wanted to keep people on a schedule, and make sure they’re checking in.”
In Curley’s addition to Wilson’s exception, a shellfisherman who loses his domiciled status would have to check in with the shellfish constable 6 and 12 months after the event, and provide “sufficient evidence of effort” to return: either “securing the services of a real estate agent, contacting at least three prospective landlords, or other such actions which demonstrate an intent to resume residency in Wellfleet.”
Select board member Justina Carlson said the board supported “the spirit” of Curley’s regulation, but sent it back to the SAB nonetheless. At its May 5 meeting, that board scrapped Curley’s definition of “sufficient effort” and a clause that would have allowed the select board to hold public hearings to determine “if the licensee has shown sufficient evidence of effort to resume residency within Wellfleet.”
“We don’t want to drag people through the mud,” said SAB chair Rebecca Taylor.
Parkington called the SAB’s final result “a reasonable middle ground.” Curley called it “fair.” He feels confident, he said, that the select board will support the measure when it hears it; after a vote of support, the exception will go to the state for final approval.
“Ideally,” he said, “there would be more opportunities for housing, and we wouldn’t need this. But the reality, Curley said, is not good, “and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.”