The tiny, rural Cape Cod town of Truro is tackling a big problem. Troubled by the trend for property owners to tear down modest, older seaside homes and replace them with behemoths referred to as “McMansions” or “starter castles,” some residents are pressing the town to enact limits on the size of new homes.
Truro, the narrow “wrist” of Cape Cod, is home to only 2,000 souls. The town boasts beaches that lure families and surfers, a charming harbor, restaurants that bustle during summer, and a vibrant arts community.
Seventy percent of Truro was absorbed into a national park in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy established the Cape Cod National Seashore to protect the fragile Cape environment. Within Truro’s National Seashore district are 200 privately-owned properties. About three-quarters are modest cottages and homes with less than 2,500 square feet of living space. Advocates for an amendment to Truro’s zoning bylaw view these properties at risk of being demolished and replaced by residential mammoths.
Two Truro residents, John Marksbury and Chuck Steinman, watched and worried as they saw modest, older homes torn down and replaced. They launched a grassroots organization named “Save Truro’s Seashore,” and spearheaded efforts to change the town’s zoning bylaw to restrict the size of newly-constructed homes. With numerous 3-acre lots, Truro’s Cape Cod National Seashore properties could succumb to the trend in destination resorts toward developer-owned vacation rentals, according to the “Save Truro’s Seashore” website. Marksbury said new buyers of properties in the National Seashore zoning district have deciphered local zoning weaknesses and are building homes of 4,000 square feet or larger.
Truro is one of a number of waterfront vacation destinations struggling to manage how to regulate the size of new dwellings. Residents of the Martha’s Vineyard town of Chilmark were inspired to take action after watching new home size mushroom over a period of years. The tipping point occurred when Adam and Elizabeth Zoia tore down a small home and replaced it with a 8,500 square foot home and two “accessory” buildings with a total of 20,000 square feet of space. The newly released documentary film, “One Big Home,” lays out how development has gobbled up open space on Martha’s Vineyard. Shot over twelve years by Massachusetts filmmaker and carpenter, Thomas Bena, “One Big Home” chronicles how mansionization spurred Chilmark residents to reign in new home size through the unpredictable process of direct democracy known as town meeting action.
Limiting how large an owner may build a home can uncover a clash of values: The right to control private property on one hand and a community’s desire to maintain its cultural heritage, community character, open space, and healthy environment on the other. Massachusetts land use attorney and planning expert, Joel Russell, wrote, “Good planning requires a balance between protecting property rights and protecting public welfare.”
In Massachusetts, the number of people living in each home is dropping while, at the same time, house size is expanding. The average size of a Massachusetts home in 1950 was 800 square feet; by 2000 18% of new homes were over 3,000 square feet. The growing size of homes has significant “collateral” effects. Large dwellings use more energy, produce more pollution, and eat up land at high rates.
In Truro, the proposed zoning amendment would limit the square footage of livable floor space relative to the size of a property. For example, on a lot less than one-half acre, the maximum house size would be 2,500 square feet. A zoning special permit process would be offered under certain conditions to permit larger homes, but the maximum size home allowed on any lot would be 4,500 square feet—if the bylaw amendment passes. Advocates for this zoning change acknowledge that zoning laws place limits on what people can do with their property and that the law must be fair and reasonable.
While Chilmark, Massachusetts, was successful in curbing unlimited new house size by amending its zoning bylaw in 2013, it is unclear how the Truro effort will fare. Voters will determine their community’s future at Truro’s spring 2017 town meeting.
This newly constructed 9,570 sq. ft. Truro house sleeps 22 people, has a home theatre, 7 bedrooms, 8 bathrooms, an outdoor recreation complex and private beach. It’s available to rent. (Credit: Save Truro’s Seashore, savetruroseashore.org).
Thomas Bena’s One Big Home: www.onebighomethemovie.com
Sarah Gardner, The Impact of Sprawl on the Environment and Human Health, in Urban Sprawl: A Comprehensive Reference Guide (David Soule ed. 2006).
John Ives, Truro Opens a Debate on Limiting the Size of Houses, Provincetown Banner, (Aug. 14, 2016), http://provincetown.wickedlocal.com/news/20160814/truro-opens-debate-on-limiting-size-of-houses.
John Marksbury, Preserving an American Treasure in Truro, Provincetown Banner (Jul. 21, 2016).
Joel Russell, Massachusetts Land-Use Laws–Time for a Change. 54 Land Use Law & Zoning Digest 3 (2002).
Save Truro’s Seashore, Market Trends (2016), http://www.savetruroseashore.org/market-trends.
Save Truro’s Seashore, Our Proposed Zoning Amendment (2016), http://www.savetruroseashore.org/our-proposed-zoning-amendment.
Mark Shanahan, Filmmaker Focuses on Vineyard’s Big ‘Starter Castles,’ Bos. Globe (Aug. 26, 2016), http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/08/26/big-houses-vineyard-draw-filmmaker-attention/R9HPKAVQIipEbbXRnbWSoM/story.html.
Remy Tumin, Hearing on Large Chilmark Home Airs Neighbors Claim of Violations, Vineyard Gazette (Jul. 26, 2012),
Town of Truro Town, About Truro (2016), http://www.truro-ma.gov/about.