Are you the kind who reads the paper cover to cover?
I’m thinking of the back of Section B of the Independent, where you will find the legal notices in columns of small gray type. I realize it’s tempting to skip over that page when what you’re heading for are the pleasures of the horoscope or the Arts & Minds section.
But there are some good stories to be found in these seemingly staid entries.
They’re also a critically important part of having local governments that work. They’re called “legals” because the law requires that the public be notified in advance whenever officials are considering taking certain actions — making exceptions to rules about what can be built, granting licenses, or giving a property owner permission to demolish a structure that might be historic, for example. All of those decisions have to be made in public meetings and have to be advertised in a “newspaper of general circulation.”
We sometimes hear complaints that local government is too secretive — that decisions are made out of sight, behind closed doors. The implication is that insiders must be getting away with all kinds of things. If you feel that way, I recommend reading the legal notices. They’re your invitation into those civic secrets.
If you doubt me, check out the legals here. You’ll find all kinds of potentially fascinating public dramas that are about to happen.
For example, a liquor store on Route 6 in Wellfleet was recently denied an extension of its seasonal license. As we reported, more than 100 people signed a petition opposing the extension. But the owner is coming back to the select board on Jan. 17, seeking a year-round license this time.
The Provincetown Planning Board will hear a property owner’s proposal to build a new deck, stairs, shed, and jacuzzi along with retaining walls on a site up in the town’s High Elevation Protection District. If that sounds like no big deal, read Christine Legere’s report about a similar case in which the owners want to build an “infinity” pool with a waterfall, and the planning board turned them down. The parties are now fighting it out in Land Court.
The Provincetown tree warden wants to cut down a 50-foot cottonwood and a 20-foot Siberian elm that he says are decayed and pose a danger to public safety. That could be an easy call — but local tree lovers might want to have a chance to say goodbye.
The cast of characters in the legals — applicants, neighbors, town employees, board members — is large. Looking over the actors is akin to keeping tabs on the neighborhood action from a park bench or a balcony, which, as Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is both entertaining and essential to safeguarding the freedom of a place.
You thought nothing happens on the Outer Cape in January? It’s a hotbed of civics and even melodrama. You just need to read the fine print.