Seasonal residents of summer resort towns may be feeling a little less welcome this year.
In Salisbury, town officials refused to turn on the water at seasonal properties until May 4. The town of Scituate also put a temporary moratorium on water connections. On Plum Island, the situation was much the same, as city officials in Newburyport delayed turning on water at vacation homes there.
As coastal communities brace for their populations to swell in size with the arrival of warm weather, local officials are trying to put regulations in place to protect all residents — seasonal and year-round — and stop the spread of COVID-19.
But the decision to keep the water turned off was not taken well by some seasonal residents.
“We’ve been getting some angry calls from people demanding that their water be turned on," said Newburyport Mayor Donna D. Holaday, who noted that keeping city workers and residents safe is her first priority.
She said it’s not uncommon to see license plates from New Jersey, New York, and Florida come out to homes on Plum Island in the warm-weather months. In an effort to reduce crowds at beaches during the coronavirus outbreak, all public parking has been prohibited on Plum Island until further notice.
“The concern is we don’t know where these people are coming from,” Holaday said. They could be traveling from coronavirus hot spots to use these homes, she said.
There are between 125 and 130 summer homes on Plum Island that were affected by the water ban, and the city has since lifted the ban and is taking appointments to turn on water, she said.
Meanwhile, on Nantucket, visitors are being asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and wear face masks in public. They’re also being reminded that hosting or attending house parties on the island is a no-no.
The town of Salisbury issued similar orders for its seasonal residents, and said violators could be subject to a $1,000 fine.
Tom Saab, a realtor and owner of Tom Saab Real Estate and president of Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change, a local organization of Salisbury Beach property owners, believes that refusing to turn water on for seasonal properties was illegal. He added that vacation homeowners were frustrated, because they need water — and time — to clean their properties and open them for the season, he said.
“People are crying,” Saab said. “People have owned these homes for 50, 60 years.”
These are people who pay taxes and sewer fees, and they’re being denied the use of their own property. Without water, they cannot clean their homes, take a shower, or flush their toilets, he said.
Saab said although Salisbury’s town manager and public health director have good intentions, he’s convinced they were not on the right side of the law.
“They’re violating the civil rights of citizens,” Saab said. “It’s not right.”
Jordana Roubicek Greenman, an attorney and member of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Real Estate Law Section Council, agrees. When a municipality refuses to turn the water on at a certain property, that’s a clear violation of the property owner’s constitutional rights, he said.
“I can sympathize with people who live in these places year-round,” she said. “But I very much believe in constitutional rights. Without water, you cannot use the property. There’s no rational basis for it."
Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington said he announced the policy in early April, and it was affirmed by the Board of Selectmen on April 13.
Harrington said the reason for this decision was so that the town would be consistent with Governor Charlie Baker’s emergency orders and advisory urging residents to stay at home and avoid unnecessary travel. “Having determined that turning on water services at seasonal properties was not an ‘essential service,’" Harrington said, "the town decided to err on the side of caution and prioritize the health and safety of our year-round residents over the temporary inconvenience that not turning on such water services for a short period of time might cause for summer-only residents.”
On Friday, Harrington said the temporary moratorium on seasonal water meter installations was being lifted for owner-occupied summer homes. He added that the town’s health department also issued an order requiring seasonal residents to self-quarantine for 14 days. “There are about 310 seasonal water meters in Salisbury and installation may now begin as soon as Monday, May 4," he wrote in an e-mail. "The temporary ban is still in place, however, for rental properties, in accordance with guidelines issued by the State. We will re-visit this latter issue before May 18.”
The seaside town of Scituate had taken similar steps in not turning on the water in summer houses, but for slightly different reasons, according to Scituate Town Administrator Jim Boudreau.
“For us it had nothing to do with people coming into town," he said.
Boudreau said the town imposed a moratorium on seasonal water connections until April 25 and then extended it to this week to ensure the safety of its water department employees.
Only three of the 12 employees in Scituate’s water department are licensed to operate the town’s water treatment plant, and the department has been working with “reduced crew size to minimize exposure for the employees and to provide redundancy of service should someone fall ill,” he said.
The water department typically turns on water service at 400 properties. “This would mean exposing our crews to over 400 different environments and people and the potential for exposure to the virus,” he said. “If too many Water Department employees get sick or are quarantined, we may find ourselves without enough licensed individuals to operate the water treatment plant."
Boudreau said the town has a list of people who have called asking to have their water service turned on, and crews will begin to turn on the water this week, starting with the people who called first. “They’ll go as quickly as they can,” he said.