Zoning Proposals See Early Support

Favorable comments greeted the first reading last night at the Barnstable Town Council of a number of ordinance amendments designed to address the effect of rental housing abuses on villages in the town.

Milton E. Berglund of Hyannis, a member of the Greater Hyannis Civic Association, said the ordinances, which deal with aspects of housing including overcrowding, trash, noise and disproportionate attention of police, are not designed to attack property rights, but rather property owners who abuse those rights.

The five ordinances are scheduled for public hearings at the next council meeting, which is set for November 1.

In other action, the town council received a review of Barnstable County efforts to protect water on Cape Cod, as well as a review of the town’s health insurance coverage program through the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group.

Mr. Berglund said the ordinances grew out of efforts by the Greater Hyannis Civic Association and one of the Voices of the Village task forces to identify and combat the effects of rental housing abuses on town neighborhoods.

He said the amendments are designed to address loopholes in the town code that allow such abuses to occur and continue.

He said the town had experienced a change in recent years in that many formerly owner-occupied single-family houses have been converted into investment properties.

In some cases, the properties have been allowed to deteriorate, and the behavior of their tenants has adversely affected people living in nearby houses.

Although the impetus for the ordinance amendments came from Hyannis residents, the amendments are drawing support from across the town.

John R. Crow, a representative of the Osterville Village Association, said his own street in that village has been “under siege” by the activity of tenants in two rental properties on the street.

Mr. Crow said the weekend partying activities at one house effectively have denied a number of neighbors the enjoyment of their back yards, while loud profanities often issue from the other house.

He said neighborhoods across the town are facing an attack on common decency.

Meg O. Loughran, president of the Centerville Civic Association, said that association’s board voted unanimously to back the ordinance amendments.

Elizabeth N. Wurfbain, executive director of the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District, said district members are excited about the ordinances as a way to battle abandoned housing and criminal activity.

Town councilors Jennifer L. Cullum of Hyannis, James Cote of Osterville and Jessica Rapp Grassetti of Cotuit are sponsoring the amendments.

One issue that arose at last night’s meeting was whether the ordinances would be brought to bear on people facing a difficult time in the current economy who are having trouble keeping up with their usual property maintenance.

Town councilor Debra S. Dagwan of Hyannis said she wanted to make sure that the focus is on “problem properties.”

Ms. Cullum called the community origin of the proposed amendments “democracy in its finest form.”

Also at last night’s meeting, Andrew Gottlieb, executive director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, reviewed the county’s participation in planning to address the need to protect groundwater and water bodies on the Cape.

Mark S. Ells, assistant town manager and the town’s representative on the collaborative, participated in the presentation.

Mr. Gottlieb said the county’s priorities included a cleanup of waterways, minimizing wastewater infrastructure and cost, and lowering the impact on individual taxpayers.

He said the county is not developing an independent taxing authority to address the Cape’s wastewater problems and lacks the statutory power to do so.

Instead, Mr. Gottlieb said, county officials studying the issue are recommending that proposed solutions to wastewater pollution come from the towns and even more local areas.

“We think the right way to go in is to go to the towns and beneath the towns to the neighborhoods,” he said. “They should have a say in solving problems in their own neighborhoods.”

In particular, the county is emphasizing attacking the problem at the watershed level.

He said two-thirds of the embayments on the Cape straddle more than one town and a number straddle up to five towns.

Mr. Gottlieb acknowledged that Cape residents are concerned about the anticipated high costs of the cleanup.

He further said that the Cape towns already are trying to cope with overall operational costs and further are restricted by Proposition 2 1/2, a state law that restricts annual increases in the property tax levy.

To that end, Mr. Gottlieb said county officials are recommending that federal and state funds pay for 50 percent of the cleanup costs.

He said the county would function as an effective lobbyist to bring those funds to the cleanup efforts, given the federal interest in protecting clean water and the importance of Cape Cod to the Massachusetts economy.

Mr. Gottlieb said the vast majority of individuals on the Cape have a broader understanding of the wastewater issue than is sometimes believed.

Aside from the importance of job creation, he said, they see wastewater as the Cape’s top issue.

“There’s a lot more reason for optimism and hope in dealing with this,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “We’re closer to getting this resolved than people think we are.”

In Barnstable at the town level, the Citizens Advisory Committee is working on a comprehensive water management plan for the town.

The committee is scheduled to give the council an update in December on its progress.

In response to the presentation, town councilor Ms. Cullum of Hyannis said it is important to let people know what is happening in their neighborhoods.

Mr. Gottlieb said county officials already have held 50 meetings around the Cape on the issue, and anticipate holding more.

He further said that the county is looking for people in the neighborhoods to get involved, to think about alternatives, and propose their own solutions to the problem.

In another presentation to the town council, Patrick Haraden, principal of Boston-based Longfellow Benefits, reviewed the comparative benefits of the Town of Barnstable’s participation in the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group, which consists of 53 government entities on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard.

The town council requested a review following the enactment of state legislation that pushed insurance deductibles and co-pays higher for municipal employees in Massachusetts.

Mr. Haraden said the good news is that the town is doing comparatively well through the Cape insurance program.

He said the bad news is that opportunities for employees to reduce their own insurance costs are slim.

According to the review, the town, its employees and retirees are receiving an average annual financial benefit of $3.7 to $4.7 million compared to buying health insurance and related services on their own.

The review further found that alternative insurance purchasing groups available with which the town could contract would cost $1 to $2 million more in annual costs than the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group, with no additional benefits or choice of plans.

The review did find that the state Group Insurance Commission plans would provide a projected annual savings of $465,000, but those plans provide more restricted insurance coverage.

At present, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the most popular plan for Barnstable employees, is not available through the Group Insurance Commission plans. Cape medical providers also are in the highest tier for co-pays under the commission’s plans.

At present, Barnstable town employees pay 50 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

In response to a question from town councilor Ms. Rapp Grassetti of Cotuit, Mr. Haraden said raising the town contribution to 60 percent would cost the town another $1.3 to $1.4 million a year.

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