Development Quid Pro Quo

In recent months, Chatham has seen a number of developments which seem to maximize building on relatively small parcels of land. The most visible is the subdivision at 78 Crowell Rd., a 1.35 acre lot previously the home of the Chatham Medical Associates offices, which squeezes three large homes on parcels of less than 20,000 square feet, well below the usual minimum lot size. Nonetheless, this was allowable under the town's bylaw, with special permits issued by the zoning board and planning board.

More recently, the same developer, Eastward Co., proposed a 14-lot subdivision on the former Hunter's Pine Acres cottage colony off Barn Hill Road in West Chatham. The lots will all meet the minimum 20,000-square-foot zoning in the district, but the subdivision will require a waiver from the planning board because the proposal calls for more than 12 lots on a cul-de-sac. Further, because the development includes more than 10 lots – or units – the zoning bylaw's mandatory provision for affordable dwelling units kicks in. Under the bylaw, 10 percent of all dwelling units in projects with 10 or more units must be affordable. In this case, one unit must be affordable; the bylaw rounds the 10 percent threshold to the nearest whole number, so at 14 units 10 percent is rounded to one.

The bylaw also allows the planning board to accept a cash fee in lieu of the developer providing actual affordable living units. The fee must be equal to three times the annual income of an income-eligible household of four, which in Barnstable County equals $203,000. Eastward Co. offered to contribute that amount to the town's Affordable Housing Trust Fund rather than dedicate one lot to affordable housing; the planning board asked for a larger figure.

What we're seeing, of course, is what has been predicted for years. Escalating land values in Chatham – and on the Cape in general, but more visible here because of the lack of undeveloped land – squeezing development onto smaller and smaller lots, with builders and developers pushing local boards to the limits of zoning and other regulations. There seems to be a voracious appetite for these properties, driven by the lucrative second home market. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with this; it's the way the market is supposed to work. But the well-publicized underlying problems – chiefly the inability of many year-round residents to afford homes – while often discussed seem to get short shrift when it comes to how town boards are treating these projects.

In this case, it might help if the planning board stuck to its regulations and did not allow a cul-de-sac with more than 12 lots. Or if instead of the donation to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the planning board require construction of at least one – but preferably two, perhaps in exchange for the cul-de-sac waiver – either at the Barn Hill Road site or elsewhere in town. The houses that will be built on the site of the former cottage colony will no doubt be second homes, adding to the summer strain on the town's infrastructure and business community. The developers of many recent projects are apparently reaping quite healthy profits, given the high price of the homes. Rather than just writing a check to the housing trust – which hasn't resulted in many on-the-ground affordable units – they should help put a dent in the actual problem, if they want waivers from the rules.