Sandwich Beach Houses

A new beach house under construction along Salt Marsh Road in East Sandwich

The town’s conservation commission is eyeing changes to existing bylaws that would strictly limit the size of oceanfront homes as well as renovations to existing beach cottages in an effort to protect the fragile coastal dune system.

Although the new rules are still barely in draft form, local contractors closely following the discussions say the town’s plans are too stringent and may actually do more environmental harm than good.

They make some interesting points.

Essentially, what the developers are arguing is that if the town is too strict with their regs, renovations of older beach cottages that are built right into the dune will halt.

This is bad news, they say, because the small cottages, which are built right into the dune on cinder block and poured cement foundations, do more harm to the environment than the larger replacement cottages that are built up on federally and state-mandated pilings.

They say the old cottages are not compliant with current regulations and 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 may not be willing to make the investment to tear down the old structures and put replacement cottages up on required pilings. These raised buildings do allow the sand to move.

Town officials agree that homes on pilings are better for the coastal environment than those that are not. But they have argued that the very act of tearing down an old beach cottage causes a great disruption to the dune.

“If we knew back then [when these original cottages were being built] what we know now, no houses would have been allowed on the dune,” Sandwich Conservation Agent David DeConto has said. “The current regulations are not working.”

But we didn’t know. So we have to make the best of what we have now and what we know now: that development on the dune is a bad idea.

Our fragile coastline is already overdeveloped. We have to be smart and take reasonable precautions to keep things for getting any worse.

Recently, we heard a story from a coastal property owner who said that a developer has set his sights on Phillips Road and is attempting to buy as many cottages along that coastal road as he can lay his hands on to raze and redevelop. He’s already redeveloped at least three: replacing modest one-story cottages with homes that are as grand as current bylaws will allow. They are huge, three-tiered structures with funky rooflines and wraparound porches.

This is precisely the kind of work the conservation commission is trying to stop.

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