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.
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.
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.
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?
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