John Marksbury,
Land Conservation
and Community Activist

Chuck Steinman,
Urban Planner and Historic
Preservation Activist

Truro, Massachusetts

John Marksbury and Chuck Steinman.jpg

Briefly describe the situation in your area.

Truro is the smallest and most rural town on Cape Cod. Seventy percent of it is located in the Cape Cod National Seashore (CCNS), which was created by Congress under the leadership of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Its purpose was to preserve the historic and rural character of a large portion of Cape Cod. Unlike other national parks, it comprises approximately 220 privately owned “in-holdings” surrounded by land owned and managed by the National Park Service. Properties with houses built before 1959 could remain in private ownership once Truro enacted a federally prescribed zoning bylaw limiting uses and lot size to three acres. What followed was a massive land acquisition program and guidelines that limited property owners from expanding their habitable living area by more than 50%; otherwise, the federal government could acquire their property. For many years people followed those guidelines until a few wealthy people and their lawyers realized that the government couldn’t afford such acquisitions and the guidelines were only “paper tigers.”

What are you working to protect?

With the trend to build larger and larger houses, mostly seasonal, and many as vacation rentals, the rural character of Truro’s Cape Cod National Seashore, our town’s most valuable asset, was at risk. Small historic houses were being torn down, or drastically expanded, and were threatened to be replaced by mega-mansions. The neighboring town of Wellfleet enacted a zoning bylaw in 2008, to limit house size in their portion of the National Seashore. However, when Wellfleet tried to extend those limits to the entire town it failed at town meeting. (In Massachusetts, a two-thirds vote is required to pass zoning bylaw amendments at an official “stand-up-and-be-counted” town meeting.) Year after year, Truro unsuccessfully tried to pass a town-wide building size limit. Inspired by the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the 55th anniversary of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and by Chilmark’s successful effort to limit house size (as was documented in One Big Home), a group of citizens called Save Truro Seashore worked with the Truro Planning Board and other town officials to create a bylaw to limit house size and to build the public support necessary to get it passed. We believe that this will help to preserve the rural and historic character of Truro’s Cape Cod National Seashore.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced?

Hostility from a few of the affected homeowners, who saw house limits as an infringement on private property rights, and a couple of very influential public officials who worked tirelessly to thwart our efforts.

Is there a leader of your group or does a committee lead it?

We led the Save Truro Seashore effort, but we worked with a citizens’ committee that included two members of the Truro Planning Board. We met for over two years to hammer out a bylaw that would achieve our house size limit goal and receive town counsel and board of selectmen approval. In addition, our group conducted a sustained public education program as well as a grassroots political-style voter contact campaign. Community forums, local press coverage, a website (, a Facebook page, multiple screenings of One Big Home, a townwide opinion survey, and public hearings were among the tools used to reach out to our community. At Truro’s April 2017 annual town meeting, we were rewarded with a vote that overwhelmingly supported our building size limit bylaw.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned since you started working on this issue?

You need a clear vision that readily translates into a soul-stirring message. You need to do your homework, recruit a small core group of committed and talented people, and persevere to be one step ahead of the opposition. Finally, you need to educate the public through a steady output of information in a variety of formats, from media to meetings on both a small and large scale.

How did you decide on the size limits?

During the process, we worked with Scattergrams that also had been used in Chilmark to understand prevailing house sizes and to help sell the concept.  We needed to reflect the prevailing house size, a basic criterion, to establish the base limit for a typical zoning lot size. We also followed Chilmark’s example of allowing the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant larger limits, lower in our case than Chilmark. While this seemed like a complication, it is important to set an absolute limit on how much relief can be granted by the ZBA. For the town-wide Residential District’s upper limits, we exempted ADU’s (1 ,000 sq. ft. max.), which had been overwhelmingly approved by Town Meeting.

Ultimately, the size limits were a political decision, with some saying our limits were too high and others too low. Many community meetings were held, much as in One Big Home, and we delayed the ATM vote until we could generate community support and Town Counsel approval.