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Cape Cod Chronicle
by William F. Galvin

EAST HARWICH – Progress on the re-zoning of a major portion of East Harwich seems to have stalled, as the planning board tries to filter through differing opinions on the need for environmental protection and the individual rights of property owners.

“We’re taking on a big project there and there are some very divergent opinions,” Town Planner David Spitz said this week. “My job is to do as much as I can to find common ground.”

Study in preparation for re-zoning the area has been in the works for about six years, with several studies conducted by consultants on economic development, and traffic and zoning framework. Last June the East Harwich Village Collaborative, a collection of local residents and representatives of town and regional agencies, with the assistance of a zoning consultant, released an in-depth handbook on zoning changes for the area.

Since that time, the handbook has gone through some alterations and the planning board has spent several months working with members of the collaborative and property owners in an effort to reach common ground on issues of economic development, affordable housing, water resource protection, wastewater management, open space protection and zoning density.

“This is an ambitious process on the table and we’ve spent considerable time exploring that package. Now it’s stuck,” Spitz said this week.

The town planner earlier this month wrote an open letter to the participants in the zoning process, stating that to date the process has not been successful because participants “too quickly retreat to basic philosophies about threats to the environment, land owner rights, etc. We must find a process in which we can understand philosophies but also successfully explore details.” Spitz said both property owner rights and environmental issues are key. Property owners want the maximum value in their property and environmental interests see too many houses as damaging the environment.

During the first few months of discussions, the town planner said, people put forward their opinions on proposals, but now they are just re-stating them and the process is not going forward. Spitz said he hopes a forum scheduled for Tuesday Jan. 30 evening at the community center will serve to get the process moving again.

The forum is an expanded meeting of the planning board and is being held at the request of the East Harwich Village Collaborative. The collaborative will providing an overview of the zoning proposals.

“I feel it’s important to us to get a restatement of what’s important to the people,” Spitz said of public sentiment.

There are huge issues, the town planner said, citing environmental issues related to Pleasant Bay and the costs associated with wastewater infrastructure in East Harwich. He also said there is a need to protect drinking water, which has been very much debated. He added the health of the bay seems to be the primary concern.

“We still have a lot of questions about the extent of the threat to drinking water,” Spitz said. “We have to be careful. We don’t want to guess wrong. But we’ve had more impassioned speeches than clear information.”

He said the planning board in its review process has raised some serious questions on the extent of damage to the environment and whether the planning process is being fair to the property owners. He said the battle ground is centered around the issue of increased density in the commercial village and whether there is a need for a density decrease in the outlying areas designated as a natural resource protection zone. There is an argument that there is no clear connection between the two, Spitz said. Collaborative member Carole Ridley called the perception of this being a case of development versus environment a myth. She said the collaborative has worked hard to balance the two interests, adding the proposed village center zoning represents substantial additional development potential in the area of the existing commercial district.

“Increased development means, however, that additional environmental protection is needed to protect water resources and community development,” Ridley stated in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “The environmental protections built into the proposals are necessary and significant, especially in scenarios of increased density in commercial development.”

Ridley cites concerns for overloading nitrogen in Pleasant Bay and the need to meet thresholds set by the state. She said this will mean 100 percent of nitrogen resulting from future development needs to be removed.

“Sewers can be a large part of this solution, but the town has a responsibility to look at non-structural and less costly measures to achieve part of this reduction. The natural resources protection district is a way to help balance the growth in the commercial center,” Ridley stated.

She said the notion that the natural resources protection district results in a taking of land has been suggested by some planning board members, but that has not be substantiated.

It is inaccurate to characterize the collaborative as unwilling to compromise, Ridley said, adding the zoning proposed is the result of six years of compromise, detailed study and public process. She said the collaborative recognizes adjustments to the zoning proposals are needed in both the commercial district and the natural resources protection district.

“The response from the planning board has been a discussion about increased development potential of the East Harwich Commercial Village without reductions anywhere else, removing provisions for mixed use, and eliminating the natural resources protection district all together,” Ridley stated. “Is this compromise?”

Tuesday evening’s meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the community center. Anyone interested in the future of property development and environmental protection in East Harwich is urged to attend, hear the proposals of the collaborative, and assist in the evaluation process of the planning board, the town planner said.

Spitz said he does not anticipate any East Harwich zoning amendments going to town meeting this spring, at least not from the planning board. It’s a big enough topic that it should have a town meeting of its own, he said.

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