By James Niedzinski
---- — ROCKPORT — The tenants of the 154 houses and cottages on the town-owned land at Long Beach don’t know yet what they will pay in rent next year once their current leases expire Dec. 31.
But they’re assured of being offered new 10-year leases after a 3-2 Board of Selectmen’s vote Tuesday night.
Erin Battistelli, who chairs the selectmen, joined fellow board members Eliza Lucas and Sarah Wilkinson voted in favor of extending new 10-year leases, with vice chairman Paul Murphy and selectwoman Wilhelmina Sheedy-Moores — who sought shorter-term lease extensions while the town sought more financial and other data — opposed the 10-year term.
While some town residents and officials – including the town’s own Finance Committee — had pushed for shorter terms and more input, the tenants at Long Beach, who own their cottages on town land that’s been leased since the early 1900s, had been hoping for leases of up to 30 years to better leverage financing. And a proposal to extend leases beyond 10 years was approved at Town Meeting in April.
But Battistelli said that lifting the 10-year restriction, as approved at Town Meeting, was for more flexibility, there was no goal for a longer lease.
“The purpose of asking Town Meeting to lift that restriction was to ensure we had all the tools that we needed to look at options for the town,” she said Wednesday.
Long Beach tenants are happy with the board’s decision, according to Steve Sheehan, secretary of the Long Beach Improvement Association.
Sheehan said an affordable long-term lease fair to both the town and tenants has always been a mutual goal. The LBIA had previously suggested a 30-year lease term. The houses on Long Beach are seasonal, residents also pay year round taxes on the land and house.
“With the 10-year lease decision now official, the ability to secure a conventional mortgage on Long Beach properties is highly unlikely,” he said. “The owners will accept it, rally together and preserve the uniqueness of (Long Beach).”
Battistelli and others said the 10-year time period allows for more stability both for the town and Long Beach residents. Battistelli noted that the vote means the town is essentially guaranteed a revenue stream from taxes and rent for the 10-year period.
Battistelli said a 10-year agreement will allow plenty of time to clear up uncertainties, partly about the Long Beach seawall, which comes with a repair estimate as high as $22 million.
“Even by next year, we will know more about those issues and can begin planning for the long term of the entire Long Beach area,” she said. “In two years time (Long Beach residents) are not revisiting these particular issues.”
Wilkinson said she shares the same view; a 10-year lease provides stability for both the town and Long Beach tenants.
“A 10-year lease shows that we are committed to working to solve the environmental challenges facing the town partnering with the long beach cottage owners,” she wrote in an email to the Times.
Still, Murphy, Sheedy-Moores and others wanted more information.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t think there was a rush to have a long-term lease in place,” Murphy said.
During a special board meeting on the issue last Saturday, Murphy proposed an ad-hoc committee or task force to come back with more information; one member could have been a facilitator and professional from outside Rockport to give their input.
Tuesday’s meeting was a workshop, where officials typically don’t vote; but selectmen agreed by majority last week to be able to vote Tuesday night.
Murphy said there were just too many moving parts, such as the crumbling Long Beach Seawall, how to determine fair rental rates and other environmental issues to consider before agreeing to a 10 year lease.
“I didn’t think it was the right way to go,” he said. “A lot can happen in that 10-year period.”
“I certainly felt that a shorter term lease was more prudent and responsible at this time, given the uncertainties,” Sheedy-Moores added.
Jim Gardner, who chairs the Department of Public Works Commissioners, also said a short-term option would have been best until the town gets results back from a sediment transport study regarding the beach itself. He had sent a memo regarding the issue to the selectmen on Monday.
Eric Hutchins, a former member of the Planning Board and Conservation Commission also does damage assessment voluntarily with the state office of Coastal Zone Management.
Hutchins attended Tuesday’s meeting, and said Wednesday he still believes more information was needed before a long-term lease was secured.
“I believe those that voted for this are acting hastily without adequate technical information associated from the beach and seawall,” he said, adding the public needed more information as well. “We’re as uninformed as they are.”
One of the questions officials discussed during a meeting last week was whether or not this was just a financial issue facing the town; some thought it was also a cultural one that characterized Rockport.
“Its a mix of both, the town is facing financial obligation and responsibilities,” Sheedy-Moores said Wednesday, adding that Long Beach is the town’s single biggest asset and there are a number of known financial issues and hurdles.
“We need to be in a strong financial positions always,” she said.
She said the fact that many cottages on Long Beach have been passed down through the generations should also be considered. The issue of subletting was also discussed, with selectmen said policing Long Beach to make sure nobody was subleasing their cottage would be difficult.
“That doesn’t seem manageable,” Battistelli said.
A Times story last week reported that some Long Beach tenants have been subletting their houses or cottages for up to $3,000 a week or $250 to $500 a night, according to online ads. A town bylaw only bans the subletting of the homes on the town-owned land for “primary income.”
Questions about the rental rates still remain to be answered.
Town Administrator Linda Sanders said Wednesday that officials more data will still be gathered. Sanders said that, if not all the information is present when the current leases expire, officials may simply extend the current leases.
Lucas said officials are still looking to hire appraisers, and that rents should increase over time.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.