TRURO — Before last weekend’s blizzard, Coastal Engineering Co. had an urgent message for Thomas and Kathleen Dennis, owners of the house at 133 South Pamet Road, which sits precariously on the bluff at Ballston Beach. Engineers told them to “shore things up and brace the pilings off to weather the storm,” said John Bologna, the company’s CEO.
In other words: give the stilt-like structures holding the dwelling up some reinforcement.
The bluff lost almost 40 feet in the blizzard, but those pilings, hastily strengthened with cross braces before the storm hit, survived the punishing weather.
Next up for the Dennises: how to rescue the single-family dwelling, which they call the “Boathouse.”
“There’s a whole lot to do to try to get this out of harm’s way,” Tom Dennis told the Independent. He was referring to navigating several regulatory boards’ permitting processes related to his plans for moving the structure. He declined to comment further.
The Truro Conservation Commission will be working with the Dennises to expedite an emergency permit to temporarily move the Boathouse further back on the property, away from the bluff, said Town Manager Darrin Tangeman in an email. A more permanent move hinges on whether the zoning board of appeals grants the Dennises a variance.
The town is still negotiating a date for the emergency relocation, but Tangeman said he expected it to happen in early February. The Dennises, meanwhile, are searching for the swiftest way to relocate the house. They have asked to use the Ballston Beach parking lot to stage equipment.
The Dennises will pay to move the house. The town’s role is guiding the family through the permitting process.
At the Feb. 1 meeting of the Truro Board of Health, member Candida Monteith said she had spotted the top of a septic tank on Ballston Beach alongside a smorgasbord of other debris littering the shore, including electrical wires and PVC pipe.
“As a member of the board of health, I’m extremely concerned,” she said.
The blizzard took “probably 40 feet off that coastal bank,” said Emily Beebe, the town’s health and conservation agent, “and with it went the septic tank.”
Beebe and the conservation commission had anticipated this. The Friday before the storm, they asked the owners to pump out the Boathouse’s septic system. The tank Monteith saw was empty, Beebe said, “and for that we’re very, very grateful.”
Beebe is working on allowing the Dennises’ contractor to pull debris from the beach, including the remainder of the septic tank, concrete rubble, and PVC pipes. This would be the first phase of the house rescue, Beebe said. The next stage will involve securing the house for its eventual move, but the details on that phase are not yet clear.
A tricky part of the beach cleanup, Beebe said, involved “collecting all those pieces that are still coming out of the bank without disturbing the bank further. I think that’s part of the trouble with this. We don’t want to cause further collapse on the bank.”
A ‘Single-Family Dwelling’?
Before the blizzard, the Boathouse was already at risk of tumbling into the ocean. The Jan. 17 storm pummeled Ballston Beach, eroding the bluff and exposing the house’s support timbers.
The Dennises have been hustling to move the house — but the spot where they want to move it would require a variance.
Their lawyer, Ben Zehnder, came before the ZBA on Jan. 24, hoping to get permission to move the house to the abutting lot at 127 South Pamet Road. The Dennises had purchased that property from Cape Rental LLC on Dec. 17 for $2,340,000. But that lot already has two buildings on it. Zehnder wanted the ZBA to allow a third structure, the Boathouse, to be located there, on the northwest corner of the lot.
ZBA member Darrell Shedd noted that the property is in the Cape Cod National Seashore. “I don’t think the board should be setting that precedent,” he said.
Zehnder floated the idea of transforming the Boathouse from a dwelling to an “accessory structure” by removing the kitchen.
But Lauren McKean, the Seashore’s planner, noted that 127 South Pamet already has two structures, one of which is classified as accessory. Only one dwelling unit is allowed per lot under Truro’s zoning bylaw. McKean wondered whether the two houses at 127 South Pamet were “really rented separately, to separate people.”
McKean asked, “What would you do to make it so that all three structures were just rented to one group? There should not be disparate rentals on this property.”
Besides the three houses at Ballston Beach, the Dennises own six other houses in Truro, including the controversial “Kline house” at 27 Stephens Way. Robert Shapiro, the lawyer who represented a group of residents who opposed the construction of the Kline house, was present at the Jan. 24 ZBA meeting.
“What Mr. Dennis and Ms. Dennis are trying to do is have it both ways,” he said. “They want to move the house and still be able to rent it, presumably this summer, to separate families. But that’s not just saving the structure. That’s saving everything.”
If Zehnder’s objective is to move the house back, he should be discussing that with the building commissioner, Shapiro said, rather than coming to the ZBA. “There’s no emergency in that sense,” Shapiro said. “And there’s really nothing this board needs to do.”
That night, the ZBA issued neither a special permit nor a variance, pushing the matter to a meeting 90 days later.
Thomas and Kathleen Dennis are residents of Springfield. He is the founder and president of the Dennis Group, a construction management company that builds manufacturing facilities for the food, beverage, and cannabis industries. The Dennis Group was sold in 2015 to Andrade Gutierrez, one of the largest construction and engineering companies in Brazil.