“Building On Top Of The Ocean Is A Great Idea” – Nobody

When we first heard about the planned Soones Court development to subdivide the land Cheryl Soones owns on the ocean side of Atlantic Road on the Back Shore, we all looked at each other quizzically, and said “What the fuck?” It was the same look we gave each other when Trump started polling favorably.

I’d also bet a crisp, clean five dollar bill on the fact that at least 75% of Gloucesterites said the same damn thing, or a more child-friendly version thereof. Why the fuck would anyone try to develop on the back shore? What kind of actual bullshit is this? This is the worst idea anyone has had in Gloucester so far in 2016, and that includes the guy who called the police because his friend stole his drugs.

If you’re not aware of this debacle, let me Clamsplain this one for you. Sit down and Irish up your coffee, preferably ensconced in a mug you’re willing to smash into a million pieces against your wall. We good? Ok, let’s go.

The Back Shore, as we all know, is a stunning, scenic wonder. It’s a fantastic road for sightseeing tourists, joggers, cyclists, and teenagers smoking pot in their cars. The 1.5 mile stretch of the Back Shore that has open ocean beside it is part of what makes Gloucester a unique and beautiful place. The tourists aren’t coming here for our discarded Keno slips and abundance of nail salons. They’re coming for the Back Shore.


Untouched splendor! Did you think it would stay like this forever? LOL.


But clearly, we can’t have nice things. And that’s where Cheryl Soones comes in. Soones is a Florida resident who has owned four parcels of land on the ocean side of Atlantic that the town, in a stunning logical move, had long deemed unbuildable. This designation has been reflected in their value – the four lots are assessed at less than $20,000 combined. When this debacle first started several months back, Soones planned to sell the land and an architect from Lenox, James Harwood, had planned to build one 1500 square foot, single family home on one of the lots. However, Soones enough (see what I did there oh god someone stop me) that one home that was already controversial somehow turned into four. Four houses. Along the Back Shore. You can throw your mug now.

I saved this as facepalm.jpg

I saved this as facepalm.jpg

So somehow, this land, for which back taxes had been owed and the city could have legally taken possession of, is now ripe for four houses to be placed on it. This would be a hilarious comedy, except it isn’t.

At this point, the seven libertarians who bother reading the Clam are saying to themselves, “Well, it’s their land, right? Why can’t they build on it?” So let’s take a look at this land. These lots have very little vegetation and are ledge with boulders upon it. Also, the ocean is there. Like, right there. During even non-notable winter storms, this is how the road looks:



And this was a minor storm. Remember the Perfect Storm? Even I do, and I was 8.


This photo was taken exactly where these four homes are proposed. These aren’t in idyllic, protected coves where building close to the shore will have a negligible effect. The Back Shore is a monster in storms. Gigantic boulders get tossed  across the road like a drunk bro throws up late-night tacos in the interior of your mom’s Jeep. On the Good Morning Gloucester post where these photos were originally shared, Jo Major Ciolino commented, We were both completely shocked at the level of destruction and damage. I remember thinking it looked like a plane had flown down Atlantic Road and dropped bombs every 30 feet. It was inconceivable a storm could destroy that much and do so much damage.” And that was twenty five years ago. Climate change will make the next Perfect Storm even more powerful. It’s not a matter of IF, it’s a matter of WHEN. 


Oh, good. Nature.

But don’t you worry! The architects and engineers hired by Soones say they have the technology to make these houses happen. That technology to get around the flood zone requirements involves 24 steel beams which will elevate the bottom of the homes to… wait for it…

15 feet above Atlantic Ave. Floating houses 15 feet above the roadway. Because that makes sense. It’ll look great. Good job everyone, pat yourselves on the back. In addition, the maximum height permitted in this zoning is 30 feet. However, that’s not calculated from the level of the street or the bottom floor of the house – instead, it’s calculated from the average pre-construction grade of the footprint of the house – which are the rocks several feet below the road. Marty DelVecchio, who is a vast fountain of knowledge, pointed out that this means the highest point of the house (except the chimney) can be 30 feet above the rocks, which is 26 feet above the road. 16 feet of that is steel supports, leaving a full 10 vertical feet in which to build the house.

This whole idea is atrocious, especially when you consider stuff like utilities – getting gas, power, and sewer to those houses, where cars would park, and dozens of other concerns like how the homes would even be insured. There’s no evidence that even if these homes were built, there’s a market for them. The homes will all be built on spec – the landowner makes money, the builder makes money, and no one really gives a crap about who buys them and what becomes of them ten years down the road – and when the inevitable happens and these homes end up like my dreams, dashed across Atlantic Road and into their neighbors’ yards, who will be left holding the bag?

This photo by Cindy Lawry, taken an hour before high tide Feb 8, shows the lots mostly submerged.

This photo by Cindy Lawry, taken an hour before high tide Feb 8, shows the proposed lots mostly submerged.

Even Planning Board member Kenneth Hecht referred to the proposal as “bizarre”. What’s even more bizarre is the convoluted way this plan even got to the point where the planning board did a site visit and will hold a hearing this week. City Councilor Joe Ciolino proposed and pushed through an overlay zone for Atlantic Road that was approved in December. The zoning requires a special City Council permit for any building to take place along the ocean side of Atlantic Road from High Popples to Bass Rocks Road. However, the day this zoning was adopted, Soones and the developers submitted their plans for a four-house subdivision solely to avoid the new law, and thus have apparently grandfathered themselves with the previous zoning law.

The city dropped the ball the first time by not taking possession of the properties when taxes weren’t paid. Full stop. Even more aggravating is that (props to Marty for knowing this) once upon a time, until recently, the city had a law requiring City Council approval of any construction in a sensitive coastal area, but that law was lifted – apparently a it meant lot of work for the City Council over minor development that everybody was OK with, and besides, the reasoning was that there are several other boards that can stop the nonsense.

Like the Planning Board. This Thursday, March 3, the Planning Board will hear the proposal. This was continued from last month’s meeting, where it wasn’t brought up – although 60 people still showed up to voice their opinions on the project.

Save Our Shores Gloucester is a group headed by Barb Silberman, with a Facebook following of nearly 2500 so far. They will not only be showing up to this week’s proposal meeting, but they’ve also pooled their resources to hire expert legal counsel to stop the subdivision dead in its tracks.  They’re also looking for donations to help offset this cost. The Back Shore is a resource for all of us, and if you want to see it remain in its current undeveloped condition, you can make a donation below (or click here for mobile users) via GoFundMe. If you would prefer to donate by check, you can do so by write a check to The Gloucester Fund – Put “SOS Gloucester” on the memo line, and mail the check to 45 Middle Street, Gloucester, MA 01930




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  1. As much as I’ve missed Clam — it can come less frequently if it’s this good.

  2. Martin Del Vecchio

    Thank you for posting this; informative and entertaining!

    Here is a simple link to the GoFundMe campaign page: https://www.gofundme.com/SOSGloucester


  3. Nothing like a fine Clamsplain post to put things in their proper perspective. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for covering this, KT. When I wrote on the topic I was mostly concerned with the infrastructure, and you used the very term I did regarding Gloucester Residents: Holding the bag.
    I did not know about the pilings and the 10 foot house idea. Seems to me that quashes it. Nobody wants a howling hurricane bungalow with seven foot ceilings no matter what the view.
    Folks, make time!
    Last month’s meeting was supposed to cover this, until some board members noticed there was a turnout and scratched the Soones matter off the docket. There were at least a hundred people in total, and this was before anyone publicized it.
    Let’s please not give them any notion that this will be easy money. Show Up!

    As an afterthought, a law requiring any builder to reside in these buildings would be a good idea, along with a guided tour of Salisbury Ma, where many such stilt homes show just how ugly they can be.

  5. Great post, KT! Joy and I well remember watching a house at the intersection of Atlantic Road and Farrington Ave. (a few hundred yards from the “Soones Court” site) simply explode as a Perfect Storm wave casually blew it away (for some insane reason, the police were letting gawkers like us drive that far) before turning us back because boulders bigger than our car were already landing on the road.

  6. I’m usually in favor of more housing being built in all kinds of places. But this is such a self-evidently terrible idea even I hate it.

  7. I don’t have a dog in this fight, but why would this be any different than the many homes in Cape Ann that already exist on the ocean side of the street? I grew up in Magnolia where there are a few homes on the water side. Granted they take a beating during a storm, but isn’t that the owner’s responsibility?

    • Literally everything written in the article explains how this is different than other oceanside properties.

      • While that is not exactly true,I understand that from a construction standpoint a lot is different and these homes may be the worst idea ever from that viewpoint. The simple answer is that they won’t get built if not safe and not marketable. From my reading on the subject I sense that the real opposition stems from some sort of “community” ownership of the back shore and not wanting to lose the tremendous view. Sort of reminds me of the guy that gets mad when his neighbor builds a bigger house that obstructs his view. As I am viewing this from afar, I would be wrong but that is the sense I get.

        • I get the sense you don’t understand oceanography Mr.Brown, and yes you are very wrong.

          No other shoreline on Cape Ann receives the amount of direct impact from East and Northeast storm swells. Magnolia does not compare at all. The Back Shore blocks the majority of those swells from reaching Magnolia. Storm winds from the Northeast run parallel to shore in Magnolia, and generate minimal storm surge.

          The rest of the Eastern shoreline North of Bass Rocks all receives some degree of shading or refraction from the offshore islands or the Rockport Breakwater. The only other place with somewhat similar exposure is Halibut Point. There are no houses perched a few feet above the intertidal zone there.

          This has little to do with “community”. It has everything to do with science, the historical record, and not doing something so obviously stupid. All of which was clearly expressed by KT.

          • Seems I struck a nerve with you Miss Robinson. I certainly do not profess to be an expert in oceanography and would defer to your expertise assuming you have some formal education on the subject. Having said that I would not describe the storm surge in Magnolia during the blizzard of ’78 as “minimal” considering the number of homes that were damaged. More importantly, if you read my comments, I indicated it seemed like a stupid idea to me. So perhaps the only area we disagree on is why there is such a widespread movement against the project. Assuming you are correct with your science, there would be little or no reason for the city to approve building on the water side of the road. If that is the case then why are so many people concerned? As I have said, I am not for or against the project. I was just skeptical as to why so many people opposed it.

          • Warren:

            I hope calling Ross “miss” was a glaring mistake on your part. If calling someone “miss” was done in purpose to belittle another commenter, you will be barred from further commenting.

          • Sorry. That was not my intent. Just a stupid mistake. I hope he was not offended.

        • … the “guy” getting mad at his neighbor here is … a big portion of the community.

    • Martin Del Vecchio

      The simple answer: those homes exist, and these homes don’t.

      The fact that such construction was allowed before zoning laws were adopted doesn’t mean that all such homes should be accepted. In fact, much of our zoning laws were created in response to such stupidity.

      The city has a right and a duty to prevent stupid things like this from happening. The city has a right to protect the potential homeowner from their ignorance, and they also have a right to protect first responders from the hazards that will inevitably be presented by emergencies there.

      Also, have you been to 178 Atlantic Road? The rocks on which they want to build are mere feet above sea level. Most of the existing homes were built in somewhat more reasonable locations; higher off the ocean, and with giant boulders protecting the houses.

      Just like the one on Sherman’s Point that was knocked into the sea during the Perfect Storm.

      • I don’t think that is the simple answer as this project would have bee killed long ago if the zoning laws prevented it. As I said before, I am not involved in this one way or the other. I think it is a bad idea, but that is not really for me to decide. My comment is more as to why there is such opposition. Perhaps the opposition is truly concerned about saving the landowner from themselves, but from what I have read that doesn’t seem to be the case.

        • Martin Del Vecchio

          “this project would have bee killed long ago if the zoning laws prevented it.”

          We are in the middle of the process of determining the legality of this project under the zoning laws.

          The fact that this project has not yet been killed is not proof that it is legal under the zoning laws.

          We are certain that the zoning laws prohibit this construction, but we have to find out.

          • I didn’t mean to imply that it was allowed under the existing zoning laws. I don’t know the answer to that. I would hope that it is not, but again that is not for me to decide.

  8. This is the same sentiment expressed by some about the recent proposal to “access” Ten Pound Island – a proposal to bring tourists onto the island. It may have some varying details such as historic uses but that was then, this is now. We have so much less undeveloped space – not “improved” for commercial traffic.

  9. I have found lots of “treasure”(driftwood,metals,etc) on the back shore.I make art with said treasures.BUILD THESE HOMES!!! That way, after the first big storm I’ll be able to find art,furnishings,hardware, all sorts of stuff! Geesh!just take a minute and think about all the sea glass that will be ready to harvest in 10 years! 2 words. Tourist Boom.

  10. Thanks for the graphic that shows where along the Back Shore the proposed houses would be built. Please correct me if I missed something, but all I recall seeing in other news stories about this issue are house numbers describing the location.

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