Non-residents’ push for the vote: what’s at stake

Outer Cape non-resident taxpayers have clamored ever more loudly in recent years to be able to vote in the town where they own a house, as well as where they live. A recent My View by the president of the Provincetown Part-time Resident Taxpayers Association spells out the argument: to deny secondhome owners a say over local affairs in the town where we pay most of the taxes (since we own most of the houses) is simply unfair, “at its core, an issue of taxation without representation.”

How can anyone, especially in these liberal parts, deny the logic of that rallying cry? But a recent lawsuit in Wellfleet may make it clearer to the My View writer and other secondhome owners why it would be a terrible idea to let non-residents vote —terrible for our towns, anyway.

Some years ago in an effort to improve Wellfleet’s abysmal percentage of affordable housing, Habitat for Humanity proposed a three -house development in a wooded area of town adjacent to the National Seashore boundary. The plan, delayed by lawsuits for years, seemed back on track when it was recently halted by yet another lawsuit. All nine complainants are non-residents.

Nobody I know goes around complaining of there being too few people in town. Part of the special quality of life here is spaciousness, peace and quiet. Most of us are happy that the National Seashore protects most of our town from development. But part of the quality of life too is knowing that lack of affordable housing is a crisis for our town, so the Habitat proposal seems like a badly needed boost for local life. And the non-residents’ lawsuit gives an indication of what would happen to the affordable housing cause if secondhome owners had the vote. (The nonresident vote, if granted, would be a strong majority, since two-thirds of our houses are secondhomes).

Some years ago our selectboard proposed taking advantage of the residential tax exemption to help out local people by shifting some of the tax burden from locals (fulltime Wellfleet has one of the lowest average incomes in the state) to part-timers. It was another way to address the unaffordability of housing caused by the second home market. Again, a boost for local life.

But non-residents packed the meeting, claiming bitterly (though some benefit from the same law in their own fulltime hometowns) that to tax them differentially was an insult to their affection for the town. “We love this town too.” ( After all, we cared enough about it to buy a secondhome here, where we spend as much of our free time as possible.)

The irony was apparently lost on those non-residents that their pleading for equal treatment based on equal love for the town was itself a good example of how different an effect part-timer and full-timer love can have on the town we all love. (The selectboard has since gotten up the courage to pass the differential tax, to the bitter complaints and threats of boycott on the part of some part-timers.)

Those non-residents agitating for the vote and blocking affordable housing are failing to grasp the situation on the ground in the town they love. Wellfleet still looks like a traditional town and of course is full of life in the summer. But our very existence of our town as such is at stake here. We are running out of the key features of any definition of a real town. Affordable housing is a big one, lack of young people, young families, is another. Our elementary school population is less than half what it was twenty years ago. The fulltime population has plateaued at around 3000 the last couple of decades, but an ever higher percentage of washashores (non-native fulltime residents) are retirees. We are not far from becoming a retirement and vacation destination.

If owning property were to replace fulltime life here as the basis for voting, if non-residents were to be allowed to rule from a distance, there would soon cease –apologies to Gertrude Stein– to be any here here.

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