Town Meeting Approves Creation Of Coastal Resilience Districts, But Balks At Concept Of Betterment Fees

Jason Graziadei •

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Baxter Road in 'Sconset. Photo by Cary Hazlegrove

Nantucket's Coastal Resilience Plan adopted in 2021 outlines nearly $1 billion in projects that could help the island withstand the anticipated challenges of climate change and sea level rise. The huge price tag is daunting, and town officials this year proposed the concept of coastal resilience districts as a way to begin segmenting areas of the island according to their unique challenges and fairly allocating the costs of coastal resilience projects in each of them.

On Thursday at Nantucket's Annual Town Meeting, voters delved into the details of the proposed districts and eventually authorized a new general bylaw that will allow the town to begin mapping them out. But a second warrant article connected to the coastal resilience district concept - a home rule petition that would have allowed the town to impose betterment fees on those property owners that stand to benefit the most from coastal resilience projects and offset the financial burden on the town and the rest of the tax base - was defeated. 

The successive votes demonstrate the challenges the town will face as it looks to implement its ambitious plan, as well as the wide range of opinions on the scale and urgency of the problems posed by climate change.

"The bylaw allows the Select Board to develop these districts and the home rule petition allows the town to charge those who benefit (from coastal resilience projects). This is key," said the town's sustainability programs manager Vince Murphy. "It reduces costs to the town and the taxpayer and also provides protection. Projects will still have to go through development, vetting, the appropriate commissions, legal review, and project-by-project funding that will all have to be brought to the appropriate boards. The merits of each project can then be debated. This is a legal tool to start the process of resilience and protection with shared funding as projects progress."

Murphy said the proposed coastal resilience districts would be the first of their kind in the state of Massachusetts.

"Water is coming," he said. "We need the right tools for the job."

However many voters were skeptical of the concept of betterment fees contained within the proposed home rule petition put forward in Article 67. Especially former Select Board member Bobby DeCosta.

"There's so many questions and loopholes that I've been peppered with and I have myself, personally," DeCosta said. "This article has huge implications. We just heard this is a $940 million price tag. That's today, not 10 or 20 years from now. The way it is set up, the entire island goes under this and it's broken into districts, and those districts are charged for projects under betterments. That singles out taxpayers in those areas, people who own property by ponds and beaches, and who pay most of the taxes for us already."

DeCosta also questioned the impacts of betterment fees in commercial districts like the downtown area along the waterfront, and who would ultimately bear the financial brunt of the policy. 

"You think landlords going to pay this? No, they’re going to pass it on (to the businesses)," DeCosta said. "This is an open checkbook to be able to tax whoever without coming to Town Meeting. This means three members of the Select Board can decide on an area and a project and charge whoever lives there a betterment to pay for it. It’s a separate real estate tax."

Builder Duane Jones, who owns a home on Washington Street along Nantucket Harbor, also weighed in against the proposed home rule petition. Jones said he was alarmed when he saw a coastal resilience plan being considered by the town and the Nantucket Land Bank for the Washington Street corridor that showed his property has a vacant lot.

"Everyone’s in the dark," Jones said, outlining the difficulties he encountered trying to find out concrete information about the town's plans for Washington Street. "Do you really want to give them the power to assess that kind of money? If you’re a property owner you should be scared to death right now."

DeCosta's motion to postpone a vote on Article 67, the home rule petition including the betterment fee language, was approved on a vote of 178 - 137.

Article 69, the general bylaw that would allow the town to create and map out the coastal resilience districts, however, fared better. That warrant article was adopted on a vote of 229 - 115.

"All this does is allow the town to create a classification system for the districts," said Select Board member Tom Dixon.

The bylaw also received support from Nantucket Land & Water Council executive director Emily Molden.

"We are very supportive of this article and this tool," Molden said. "It will definitely increase the town's capacity to achieve many of the goals and objectives that are in the coastal resilience plan and are before us. That plan certainly outlines a great variety of projects that the town will continue to explore and prioritize and they are going to cost a lot of money. And that is the point. We do need to start planning for this now. I'm sorry the last article (the home rule petition in Article 67) was not adopted but I think creating this bylaw and the island coastal resilience districts and giving our community and boards the ability to start planning and talking about creating these districts for the future is incredibly important."

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