Coastal Conundrum

Conservation board hearings can eat up a lot of your clients' time and money, unless you help them prepare.

Home on Cape Cod built by Cataldo Custom Builders, East Falmouth, Mass.

Photo: Eric Roth

October 05, 2016

I build exclusively on the waterfront on Cape Cod and the islands off the coast of Massachusetts, where conservation-board hearings are an inevitable part of the approval process. During my 30 years in business, I’ve seen how personal those hearings can get, sometimes generating all the heat of a presidential debate. As frustration builds between the client’s representative and individual board members, accusations fly, people ask irrelevant questions, and sometimes litigation ensues. It’s aggravating, but some of it can actually be avoided. 

Conservation commissions are usually made up of unpaid local volunteers and a paid administrator, and they have a lot of power. They’re supposed to protect wetlands, coastal banks, and other natural resources and enforce regulations and other bylaws—not try to extend their level of authority—but unfortunately that does happen in some cases. Discussions drift off-track, public meetings are prolonged, and cooler heads don’t always prevail. This directly affects us as builders, since it delays our projects and stalls our cash flow.

To further complicate things, neighbors who bought much less expensive property sometimes attend the hearings to object to the proposed project for any number of reasons. The truth is, most of them are upset at the prospect of losing their water views.

Here are a few examples of the wacky goings-on I’ve witnessed in conservation-board hearings. 

1. A neighbor claimed that a Native American burial ground existed on property that my company was about to develop. The claim later proved to be false. 

2. Another neighbor objected to my client’s new, legal 6-foot fence because it partially obstructed a water view. I attended a legal hearing on site with 15 people, including state and local wetlands representatives as well as attorneys representing both the client and the government agencies. This resulted in astronomical legal expenses for both sides that could easily have been avoided with good communication. 

3. One client was denied approval for a private pier where the water depth at the end of the pier was 32 inches instead of 36 inches, even though both adjacent neighbors had piers that were approved under previous regulations. 

Here’s how costly delays can be. I built a spec home that didn’t sell for 18 months because a simple pier took that long to get approved. I had to pay big financing fees at 13 percent interest, which cost me the entire profit for the project. Within a week of obtaining approval for the pier, I received three offers for the house and sold it. 

Admittedly, there’s not much we can do to change people’s personalities or attitudes. However, a lot of pointless arguing and contentiousness can be avoided if clients prepare their application properly, hire a good team, consult with officials early on, and comply with local and state regulations. We advise our clients to hire a professional engineer who is familiar with the local conservation board and experienced in making presentations. It could save everyone involved thousands of dollars and months of hearings and planning frustrations. 

Ralph Cataldo is president of Cataldo Custom Builders, in East Falmouth, Mass.

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