New construction often produces tension between development and conservation. But in Truro, it became an epic battle that took place on what some consider sacred ground — a 9.5-acre waterfront lot near Cape Cod Bay adjacent to the summer home of American painter Edward Hopper.
After 11 years of legal battles, a court ruled in mid-September that the house could be occupied. The decision allowed its new owners — Thomas Dennis and Kathleen Westhead-Dennis — to move in, much to the chagrin of the neighbors, who argue the house was illegally built and mars the picturesque surroundings Hopper painted over some 30 years while visiting there.
The controversy began in 2007, when developer Donald Kline bought the property, and got building permits for an 8,333 square foot modernist home of concrete and glass. The next year, four neighbors went to court, contending Kline's permits violated town zoning by-laws and were illegal.
Despite the lawsuit, Kline accepted the risk and built the house. In 2011, a court ruled that the building permits were illegal and ordered the town to have the house torn down. But the Klines continued their legal battle to occupy their new home.
There is almost no one in the neighborhood without an opinion on the structure. As I walked along the dirt road that leads to both homes, I met a woman walking her dog who told me she was too distraught to talk about the court cases brought by neighbors who wanted the house torn down.
But another neighbor, who identified herself only as Anne, was angry.
“It is proof that money can be used to destroy the beauty of the Cape, especially situated right next to one of the most beautiful expanses of dunes and bearberry that used to have just the Hopper House on it,” she said.
Peter McMahon, an architect and expert on Cape Cod modernist houses, said residents were upset about the house's size, but ultimately the problem was the house’s location.
“It was in part of the viewscape of the Hopper House, the Hopper studio, and there was a feeling with many people that it was a landscape that should be protected, since it was so documented in his paintings,” McMahon said.
The house remained in legal limbo without an occupancy permit and sat empty until 2016. Facing mounting legal costs, the Truro Select Board negotiated a $3 million deal with the Dennis family, who purchased the house from the Klines. As part of the deal, the Dennises would pay a half million dollars in zoning fines and donate another $2.5 million to the town. Dennis and his wife moved in. But that provoked another lawsuit, as six neighbors questioned the agreement.
One of the plaintiffs was Artist Vicky Tomayko, who was angry that someone could buy their way out of an illegal deal and violate the famous landscape.
“I don't really have a problem with people having a big house if that's what they need, but it wasn't technically legal,” she said. “And I want to see the character of the neighborhood preserved.”
But Tomayko and the others lost their fight when the Massachusetts Supreme Court refused to review the case.
McMahon said this lawsuit may be over, but similar battles will continue in other places on the Cape where wealthy people are building large houses.
“There are people in town who say, ‘Hey, they pay taxes, and they don't use services and it's good for the trades, it makes work for people,’” McMahon said. “And then there's the people who are saying, 'At a certain point, the reason that people come here gets ruined, because the town just loses its character.' That battle is going on just everywhere.”
Especially on the kind of waterfront property where Edward Hopper lived and drew inspiration for so many years.