PROVINCETOWN — The zoning board of appeals has approved both special permits and a height variance needed for a major mixed-use development on the former Old Reliable Fish House property, but that action doesn’t clear the way for the project, due to a pending Land Court suit.
Developer Christine Barker’s proposal calls for the demolition of the existing structure, which was condemned after a fire in 2015, and construction of a new 31-room hotel, four residential condos, a restaurant and bar, a meeting space, and some parking, along with the reconstruction of a pier.
Both the zoning and planning boards approved Barker’s initial proposal for the property in early 2020, but three neighbors appealed both decisions in Land Court. The case was recently put on hold to see whether Barker could satisfy the abutters’ concerns with a new plan that offers the same components but on a smaller footprint.
The new plan required Barker to once again go before town boards.
In a letter sent to the zoning board, attorney Gregory Boucher, who represents two abutters opposing the development, urged it to require cleanup of the property prior to consideration of any permits. The property is owned by H. Bradford Rose but under agreement to Barker, pending the granting of permits.
“It is unconscionable to allow the applicant to create a public health and fire hazard while at the same time seeking discretionary relief from the town boards,” said Boucher. “The property is in shambles with overgrown shrubs, abandoned automobiles, garbage, and sleeping bags. Neighborhood complaints have not been addressed, and the applicant has refused requests to clean it up.”
Jeremy Callahan, chair of the zoning board, agreed the property was a mess but said he didn’t believe it was a subject for his board. Matters such as trash were up to town hall staff to address, Callahan said.
Town Manager Alex Morse said Tuesday that he had walked the Old Reliable property and saw the blight first-hand. “We are sending notice to the property owner to clean it up,” he said. “The town is looking into enforcement actions. If the property owner does not respond, we will look at other actions like liens.”
Scott Ravelson, owner of an abutting property on Commercial Street, told the zoning board last week that Barker’s tweaks had not addressed his concerns. He and Patrick Patrick, owner of Marine Specialties and another abutter, intend to continue their lawsuit.
Sole access to the Old Reliable property is via a narrow alley off Commercial Street owned by Ravelson. Easement rights that run with the Old Reliable site allow use of the alley.
But Ravelson has argued that the easement provides limited access rights that aren’t sufficient for the kind of development Barker plans and wouldn’t provide public access to the pier.
“I still can’t figure out how people can get to this pier over our right-of-way,” he said. “How can you have a public pier without public access?”
Town Counsel Amy Kwesell told the zoning board that its job isn’t to determine Barker’s easement rights. Those, she said, are a “private party issue.” The zoning board’s role was to consider whether it should approve the special permits and variance, she said. “We’re not looking at this as whether we are going to stop litigation,” Kwesell said.
Rob Anderson, owner of the Canteen and the last of the three who filed the Land Court appeal, was satisfied with Barker’s changes and has dropped out of the suit.
Written comments to the zoning board were evenly divided.
John Yingling, owner of several Commercial Street properties, called the area of the site “basically a wasteland.”
“This project would bring it to life,” Yingling said, would raise property values in that area, and make it safer.
Resident John Swanson, also an enthusiastic supporter, said Barker has shown grace while “trying to appease abutters and pitchfork-wielding non-abutters,” who, he believes “will never be satisfied.”
In her letter of support for the project, Gina Longo, who worked at the Fine Arts Work Center and at Outer Cape Health Services as development director, expressed her admiration of Barker. “I firmly believe that Christine will create a beautiful space that will benefit the town and tourists for decades to come,” she wrote.
In opposition, Commercial Street resident Peter Petas said Provincetown is expected to be “overrun” this summer and businesses are struggling to find workers. “At some point, the relentless drive to bring more people to town has to stop,” he wrote, warning it risks “severely eroding the character of our seaside village.”
In his letter, Ted Jones asked, “Does this project reinforce what we love about Provincetown and Cape Cod, or does it seem like a fancy taste of the large cities that many of us have actively chosen to avoid by coming here?”
Zoning board members endorsed the new proposal on May 6, just as they had approved the one offered in 2019, granting the special permits and height variance by unanimous votes. The approval, along with a list of the same conditions that accompanied the 2019 proposal, will be written up and put before the board for its final signoff at a future meeting.
The project is set to be considered by the planning board at its May 13 meeting.