Dune shacks: private use to continue [op-ed CCT 24 July 2012]

At long last, the 50 year squabble over the Provincetown dune shacks may be simmering down, with an agreement signed on May 18.

To the outside observer not conversant with the issues, the conflict must seem much ado about very flimsy architecture. The term “shack” is not false modesty. “Hovel” or “hut” would do as well for some of them. Substandard by any building code, lacking indoor plumbing, electricity and insulation, not to mention both plumb and level, terminally sand blasted, vulnerable to sea, sand and wind, they are a scant step up from a tent.

And that’s the whole point of course. Unlike in most real estate doings, it’s the meagerness of this architecture that is sought after. And fought over. Dune shacks are at the other end of the housing spectrum from trophy houses and cherished for opposite reasons. “That which shelters least shelters best” is the theme. Here on the outer Cape, the shacks offer the most intense experience under a roof of what we do best: outerness, exposure.

Even a short stay can be “life-changing”according to Julie Schecter, co-founder of Peaked Hill Trust, one of the non-profits that oversees use of several of the shacks

When the National Seashore was created in 1961 all but one or two of the shacks had been used for years by people who had never legally owned them. Their claim was that of long established usage by family and friends.

The Seashore’s first impulse was to see the shacks as trashy eyesores, a blemish on nature to be eliminated as quickly as possible. Only slowly, with pressure being applied by passionate shack users, did the Park begin to see that the shacks had value in themselves.

Most (but not all) of the shacks survived the tear-down impulse and eventually their value was officially recognized and protected by being listed as the Peaked Hill Bars Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Along the way many of the shacks continued to be used by those who had always used them. A few were given to nonprofits such as Peaked Hill Trust to oversee making the dune shack experience available to non- traditional users.

According to the story in this newspaper (2 July 2012), the May 18 agreement specifies that 40% of the 18 shacks will continue to be privately enjoyed under contracts lasting up to 20 years, 40% will be presided over by the non-profits for public usage, with the remaining 20% up for grabs between the two interests.

An important feature of the new plan is to officially recognize what amounts to the squatters’ rights of traditional users.

The newspaper story ends on a sour note, quoting Josephine Del Deo griping that the plan favors public usage over traditional users like her. She refers dismissively to nonprofits treating the beloved shacks “like a concession.”

It seems to me that traditional users should on the contrary consider themselves pretty lucky. Legally all the shacks belong to the government, which is to say to all of us citizens. It would be a reasonable argument that all the public’s dune shacks should be made available fulltime to the public.

The private users’ (many of whom are not fulltime local residents) best argument has always been: We should be able to go on enjoying these shacks which we don’t own because we’ve always enjoyed the privilege. The implication is that longterm affection for the shacks is superior to that of someone chosen by lottery for the privilege of a one or two week stay in a shack. Some local users of my acquaintance would argue that point. Why should only a privileged few have at shot at that life-changing experience?

Traditional users should feel grateful to have made this deal to go on treating as private property the public’s dune shacks.

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