PROVINCETOWN — Over the course of two nights, town meeting voters passed nearly every article on Provincetown’s 48-item warrant, including a long-sought funding authorization for a new police station and a slate of nine articles to address the housing crisis.
Monday night was mostly about the police station vote and two articles involving short-term rental taxes and attracted a large turnout of 448 town voters. On Tuesday, a smaller crowd authorized several studies of town-owned land for future housing and debated the composition of the finance committee and residency requirements for town officials.
Police Station and a Park
The police station has been controversial for years, with town meeting voters authorizing an $8.6 million bond for construction in 2017, but then defeating $3.9 million in supplemental funding in 2019.
This year, supply chain issues and construction premiums drove the supplemental bond measure up to $8.5 million, but after a detailed presentation and 20 minutes of comments, the meeting voted almost unanimously to spend the money.
Building committee chair Sheila McGuinness told the history of the project, including her own opposition to a prior proposal for a station on Race Point Road.
“The article before you tonight is a combination of efforts that began in 2001, when the then-police chief sent a letter to the town manager and board of selectmen, listing the operational deficiencies and hazards of the current police station,” McGuinness said.
Questions about the plan included whether a larger police station would result in a larger police force.
“This building is not a palace, it’s not the Taj Mahal, and it does not mean a direct correlation to increasing our police force,” said Town Manager Alex Morse. “It’s to support our existing police department for the year-round population we have, and the peak summer population we have as well.”
When the vote was called, the show of hands was so lopsided that there was no official count taken. About 10 people appeared to vote no.
Another debt authorization of $1.8 million for Cannery Wharf Park in the East End also passed with about 10 votes against. Recreation committee member Cathy Nagorski and Open Space committee member Dennis Minsky estimated that up to $750,000 in grants could help defray the cost of the project.
“As far as I know, this is the only waterfront park to be created on Cape Cod in over 50 years,” said Minsky. “We have this jewel, and we need to support it.”
Article 15, for a 3-percent community impact fee on investor-owned short-term rentals, passed with about 15 no votes. The fee will be added to the cost of bookings of short-term rentals whose owners have two or more residential properties in town listed for short-term rental. Rentals located at a person’s primary residence are exempted, if that residence is a one-, two-, or three-unit dwelling.
“The focus on short-term rentals is that any home, any property in town can turn into a short-term rental, and it seems there’s no ceiling lately in terms of what people are willing to pay,” said Morse. “We can’t regulate that. So, the point is to capture revenue, and discourage folks from warehousing multiple properties, because that has severe consequences on year-round residents.”
Peter Okun said the measure unfairly singled out short-term rental owners. Brian Orter said he thought 3 percent was too low to dissuade people who are renting properties for $5,000 a week. Morse explained that 3 percent is the highest the state law allows.
Debate on Article 16, was the most contentious of the evening, taking up nearly an hour. It reallocates the town’s rooms tax revenue, which for 10 years has been split among four different town funds: the tourism fund, the general fund, the capital stabilization fund, and the sewer fund. The reallocation reduces the percentages directed to these four and directs 30 percent to the town’s housing funds.
In July 2019 the rooms tax was extended to include short-term rentals. That expansion raised revenue from $2.2 million in 2018 to a current forecast of $4.7 million. Dividing that money up proved to be a divisive subject.
Several speakers argued that less of the revenue should go to the tourism fund and a higher percentage go to housing. An amendment that would change the percentages was offered by Jennifer Cabral but was ruled outside the scope of the original article and therefore impermissible by Town Moderator Mary-Jo Avellar.
Her ruling was challenged by several speakers, including former Town Manager David Panagore. Town Counsel John Giorgio came to the microphone six different times to reiterate that the ruling on scope was the moderator’s alone to make.
“The determination of the moderator on questions of scope is final,” said Giorgio. “You can ask her to change her mind, but she’s the one that makes that determination.”
“There is no such thing as an appeal,” said Avellar. “You can appeal the ruling from now until the end of the world. You can continue to discuss whether or not you like my ruling. But that doesn’t get to the point of voting.”
A measure to indefinitely postpone the article was defeated when voters pointed out that without any article no rooms tax money would be dedicated to housing. With no other option available, the article came to a vote and passed almost unanimously.
The other housing articles went more smoothly. The town purchased a long, narrow 1.7-acre parcel at 288A Bradford St. with the understanding that the rear area could be conservation land and the front could support up to 15 units of new housing. That purchase was made with $1,575,000 of free cash.
“There’s a direct correlation between higher-than-expected short-term rental tax revenue and hotel revenue that resulted in higher than ever free cash,” said Morse, “and we’re directing it to housing.”
Voters also debated four different development consultant contracts for town-owned land, with extensive conversations about the Route 6 corridor. Some warned that any assessment of the land’s potential would inevitably lead to development. Others argued that knowing the land’s wetland and endangered-species status was greatly preferable to not knowing, and the $60,000 to assess the land was worthwhile. About 15 people voted against the Route 6 assessment.
Assessments of potential uses for the Veterans Memorial Community Center site and of land at 30 Creek Road and 189 Commercial St. all passed easily.
The housing package was rounded out by two measures involving the inclusionary zoning bylaw: one to increase the in-lieu fee charged to developers who fail to include affordable units in their projects, and the other to allow a fourth story as a development bonus to inclusionary projects in the General Commercial zone. The precise extent of the GC zone had to be discussed, because, somewhat counterintuitively, it is not on Commercial Street but along Shank Painter Road and some adjacent parcels on Route 6. Both measures passed by large margins.
With the police and housing agenda complete, only a few significant measures remained on Tuesday night. The town voted not to change the appointing authority for the finance committee, which had been proposed in a petitioned article from Laura Rood. Separation of powers arguments carried the day, with the select board arguing that it should not have the authority to appoint finance committee members.
A proposed change in the way Visitor Services Board members are appointed was effectively withdrawn when the select board requested an indefinite postponement. Board member Louise Venden offered a fiery dissent, arguing that reserving seats on the VSB for town organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Women Innkeepers of Provincetown had the effect of excluding younger people who might not be part of those organizations.
The only other outright defeat of the night was of a measure to allow the police to fine business owners who fail to sweep their sidewalks every morning. While voters voiced their support for clean sidewalks, some objected to the enforcement program of Article 31, and the select board voted not to recommend the measure, which had originated at the recycling committee. In the end, it received fewer than five votes.
Near the end of the meeting, a measure from the select board was defeated and then partly resurrected with some quick parliamentary work by Morse. Article 36 proposed to amend the town’s charter, which currently requires the police chief and DPW director to live in either Provincetown or Truro, to instead allow those two department heads to live within a 45-mile drive of Provincetown. That rule would permit residency as far away as Yarmouth, which was a rotary too far for many voters, especially when it came to the police chief. The measure failed when put to a vote.
Provincetown’s DPW Director Rich Waldo is leaving next month to become town administrator in Wellfleet, and Morse immediately moved to reconsider and amend. His amendment applied the 45-mile rule only to the DPW director and left the Provincetown-or-Truro rule in place for the police chief. That version passed almost unanimously.
“Thank you, town meeting, that was fun,” said Morse. The few remaining articles passed easily and another town meeting passed into the history books.