ESSEX — The last summer of Conomo Point — at least Conomo Point as it has always been — is something the people who summer on this majestic corner of Essex Bay have long feared. That’s because they have never owned their sliver of paradise on Cape Ann; for a century, since a time when the area was little more than a bunch of clam shacks, they leased the land from the town of Essex.
At the end of 2011, that 100-year lease expired, and town voters long ago decided it would not be renewed. Now everything is in turmoil. A year-to-year lease is in effect while the situation shakes itself out, but many people have already walked away from homes that have been in families for generations. “For Sale” signs are as much a part of life as the bugs from the salt marsh.
“Look at this place,” Margie Sydlowski said as she stood on the deck of a house her parents built in 1966 and pointed to her neighbors. “They’ve left. They’ve left. They want to leave. This was a wonderful community for generations, and that sense of community has been chipped apart from the stress.”
The town, in short, wants more from the land — more revenue and better access to the best stretch of waterfront in Essex, as well as the resolution of sewage issues the town does not think it should pay for. The Conomo Point residents feel that they are being gouged, and that the other town residents do not take advantage of the public boat dock and small beach that are there now.
It is a mess that has pitted the town’s year-round residents against the summer tenants. This summer, it reached a boiling point when about a third of the 121 lease-holders — tenants at the southern end of Conomo Point, the area that is not on the waterfront — got something that, in theory, they have always wanted: the chance to buy their land. To do this, the town had to get special legislation from the state to offer it to the tenants without putting it on the open market.
This all sounds well and good, residents say, but there is a big catch: In 2010, the town informed lease-holders that they do not own the homes they built or bought on that land, and therefore have no equity.
As a compromise, the town says it will give them the homes for just the cost of the land. The purchase-and-sale offers went out on July 25 and expire in 60 days.
But many residents say the concept of a “free house” is a clever sleight-of-hand, and that the cost of the home is being buried in the land appraisals, which they say are too high. The town disputes this. Brendhan Zubricki, town administrator, said the land cost figures came from a certified appraiser and the report and methodology are available for all to see.
Without the equity in their homes, many residents say they will not be able to afford the land cost, and will be forced walk away or sell the rights to their lease for next to nothing.
Those who live on the northern end, the area along the waterfront, can stay under short-term bridge leases until the town decides what it wants to do with that section. They too are under increased financial pressure because their lease rates have climbed sharply under the terms of the bridge leases. Joan Herrmann, 71, a longtime year-round resident on the northern end, said her lease was $1,500 a year, but by the third year of the bridge lease it will climb to $10,000.
“I’m retired, and I live on a fixed income of about $30,000 a year,” she said. “I can’t pay that kind of money, plus property taxes.”
Herrmann obtained her house, and another one at the southern end of Conomo Point that she rents out, when her husband passed away. Now, with no equity in either, she’s going to walk away from the rental property to try to focus on saving the year-round home.
“I have nowhere else to go,” she said.
Bob Sisk, who has been summering in one of the nicer houses on the water since he was born in 1954, said that by the third year of his bridge lease, he will be on the hook for $30,000 a year from rent and property taxes.
“That’s for a house I’m only allowed to use for six months,” he said. The town turns off the water for the other six months of the offseason.
A handful of tenants filed suit in late June over the home-ownership issue, including just one lease-holder in the southern end, Paul Touher. He did not receive a purchase-and-sale offer, and the town says he won’t until he removes his name from the lawsuit, leading to accusations of bullying and coercion.
The stress at Conomo Point has been building for decades, ever since a legal squabble that began 20 years ago, when the town instituted a sharp rent increase. The Conomo Point residents went to court and got the rates reduced, but it led to bad blood, a battle between “summer people” and year-round “townies” who wanted to put an end to what many saw as a sweetheart deal for the Conomo Point tenants, and to make better use of the waterfront. It’s open now, but many locals say that is only in theory, because the area lacks amenities — like public bathrooms — that make it usable.
Conomo Point has been a regular topic at Town Meeting through the years. In 1997, a few years after the legal squabble, the people of Essex voted not to renew the lease when it expired and, in 1999, voted that the waterfront area at the northern point should be retained for public use. To get that access, one option consistently floated is to tear down many of the picturesque late-1800s cottages on the waterfront.
“It’s very stressful,” said Linda Osburn, as she sat on the porch of one of those cottages, which her great-great uncle built in 1880, watching dusk descend over the backside of Crane Beach in Ipswich, just across the bay to the north. “It’s actually making people ill. They’re heartbroken.”
On the other side of the table are those who argue the Conomo Point residents have had a sweetheart deal for a century — the lease rates were “cheap,” they say, while the Conomo Point residents prefer the term “reasonable” — and they simply refuse to accept the market reality.
“They’ve been renting for pretty short money, and now that they have to buy, they’re facing the economic reality,” said Cliff Ageloff, who has been an outspoken advocate for increasing the town’s footprint at Conomo Point and improving amenities, such as adding restrooms, picnic tables, and parking.
“If you ask 50 people in town what should happen out there, you’ll get 50 different opinions. If you ask a tenant, they have one opinion: it should stay like it is. All I know is that the town has spent all kinds of money on planning, and not one square foot of new land has been allocated for town use.”
Walter Mears, 30, who grew up in one of the 28 year-round homes on Conomo Point and now lives year-round elsewhere in Essex, said his parents saw the writing on the wall and were lucky enough to get $100,000 for their home five years ago after years of trying to sell it.
“It was sell or lose it all,” he said. “It is what it is. You lease a car, you have to give it back even if you love the car, unless you have the money to buy it. That’s a hard reality for people to take, but if you can’t afford things, you can’t afford them.”
His grandparents still live on the northern end, and he was on Conomo Point recently because his mother had rented a house for a few weeks so her grandchildren could get a little bit of the Conomo Point summer experience.
That summer experience is hard to argue with. As the sun set on another beautiful day on Conomo Point and the bugs came out, there were children squealing on bicycles, kayakers coming in to shore at Clammer’s Beach, sailboats drifting by in the bay, neighbors sipping wine together on porches.
Nina Walker, one of the leaders of the tenant fight, strolled along the waterfront, and said she feels sad. That’s a word you hear a lot on Conomo Point. They know they have something special, they swear they are willing to share it, yet they still feel it being pulled out from under them, she said.
The handful of parking spots at the point, reserved for Essex residents, were empty. She and others said they are almost always empty, yet they are constantly being accused of being closed off to the rest of the town, inaccessible.
“We’re good sharers, we have to be, or else we wouldn’t be able to live this close together,” she said. “But if you want to turn a group into an ‘other,’ you demonize them. If you do that, it makes throwing that old lady out a whole lot easier.”