Salt Marsh Road Cottage

The new beach house restrictions that the conservation commission is considering would keep the small cottage on the left from being turned into a big home like the one on the right.

The Sandwich Conservation Commission is considering new regulations strictly limiting the size of new homes—as well as renovations to existing homes—on the town’s coastal dunes and barrier beaches.

Although the new rules have not yet been finalized, local contractors closely following the discussions say the regulations are too stringent and would essentially halt all development along the beach.

Sandwich architect Anne M. Michniewicz and Robert M. Gray, a wetlands scientist, coastal consultant, and chairman of the Bourne Conservation Commission, have been working on beach redevelopment projects for many years.

They believe that the small cottages built right onto the dune do more harm to the environment than the slightly larger replacement cottages that are built up on federally and state-mandated pilings.

“These cottages, built from 1900 to 1978, are built permanently into the dune on cinder block and poured cement foundations,” Mr. Gray said during a recent interview. “They are not compliant with regulations and do impede the dune sand from migrating.”

But if the conservation commission limits the size of rebuilt cottages to a proposed 1,400 total square feet, current and future cottage owners will not be willing to make the investment to tear down the old structures and put replacement cottages up on required pilings, Ms. Michniewicz and Mr. Gray said.

The raised buildings do allow the sand to move, Mr. Gray said.

Current federal regulations only allow cottage owners to spend 50 percent of their cottage’s appraised value to expand or renovate the structure. For instance if a home is valued at $200,000 the owner is allowed to spend $100,000 to expand or renovate it. While many of these beach properties are valued at $500,000 or more, most of that is land value. The appraised value of many of these cottages is only about $100,000, Ms. Michniewicz said. That means the owner can only spend $50,000 on the work.

“It can’t be done. You have to take them down and start from scratch,” Ms. Michniewicz said.

But if the new structures can only be 700 square feet per floor, it is unlikely the owner would spend hundreds of thousands to build homes that are code compliant, she added.

Under the existing unwritten town guidelines, the livable space in replacement structures can only be 60 percent bigger than the original cottages.

That percentage is workable, the contractors say, and most of the the new cottages they have built range from 1,800 to about 2,000 square feet.

“Those cottages are now worth $300,000 and the property is worth $1.2 to $1.5 million, which adds to the tax rolls,” Ms. Michniewicz said. “It also provides jobs for local contractors.”

The updated properties also have updated septic systems, Mr. Gray added.

David J. DeConto, director of natural resources, said the local contractors are getting ahead of themselves.

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When the regulations are put into final draft form, they must be approved by him and the town attorney, and must be discussed at two public hearings before they are codified, Mr. DeConto said. He also said he would send the draft to the selectmen, the planning board and anyone else who might be interested.

In addition, there will be a six-month amnesty period so homeowners can apply for permission to renovate under the existing guidelines.

Mr. DeConto said the 1,400-square-foot limit currently under discussion may not be the final number.

“Town counsel may say that’s illegal,” Mr. DeConto said.

The natural resources director did say, however, that the regulations have to be changed to protect the dune from erosion, sea rise, and storm damage.

“If we knew back then [when current regulations were drafted] what we know now, no houses would have been allowed on the dune,” Mr. DeConto said. “The current regulations are not working.”

Under the proposed regulations, size limits would govern buildings that are razed and replaced, as well as add-on porches, patios and other such renovations.

The purpose of the regulations is to protect the fragile barrier beach from overdevelopment, but would also lessen the visual impact of huge, wrap-around decks, docks, walkways and sheds that have been added to the small houses and cottages near the beach, Mr. DeConto has said.

He has been urging the conservation commission for years to amend the regulations, he said.

Regarding houses on pilings being better for the dune, Mr. DeConto said elevated houses are better than non-elevated homes, but when the old cottages are razed and the dune is disturbed, it is never the same. Also, the vegetation beneath the renovated homes on pilings is never as robust because it gets little sun.

“Something has to be done,” Mr. DeConto said. “Let the conservation commission do its job.”

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