Dissension Prompts Call For Resignations On Affordable Housing Trust Board

by Tim Wood
Michael Schell. FILE PHOTO Michael Schell. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – A member of the affordable housing trust board has suggested that two other board members consider resigning after they signed a letter to the editor disagreeing with the full board’s endorsement of an affordable housing developer.

At the trust’s June 26 meeting, David Oppenheim said that fellow trust board members Karolyn McClelland and Bruce Beane should consider stepping down after publishing their support for the Housing Assistance Corporation over Pennrose as developer of the former Buckley property in a June 27 letter to the editor in The Chronicle.

Select board members Cory Metters and Dean Nicastro also signed the letter. Both the affordable housing trust board and the select board served as the evaluation committee for proposals for two affordable housing projects, at the Buckley property on Main Street in West Chatham and land on Meetinghouse Road in South Chatham. The four who signed the letter ranked HAC’s proposal above Pennrose’s; the evaluation committee voted 6-4 to recommend the Pennrose proposal, with McClelland, Beane, Nicasto and Metters supporting HAC.

“This letter in my opinion is an insult to this board and an insult to the work that we’ve all done together,” Oppenheim said. McClelland and Beane “should consider resigning,” he said. “The game didn’t go the way they wanted to so they want to take their football and go home.”

Michael Schell, chair of both the select board and the affordable housing trust, declined to allow McClelland and Beane to respond at the June 26 meeting. The subject of the letter was not on the meeting’s agenda, and he allowed Oppenheim to address it under the “comments from the chair” agenda item.

Schell said he knew the issue was going to come up and he was trying to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

“My judgment was we are better off with people upset at me because I moved on to the agenda for the day than we are having an open display of fisticuffs,” he said. He doesn’t think anyone should resign from the board, he added.

“I want us to continue working toward a common objective, which I believe we have, which is housing in Chatham,” Schell said.

At the meeting, Oppenheim said the evaluation committee spent a considerable amount of time discussing the pros and cons of all the proposals. The letter supporting HAC, which proposed building homeownership units as opposed to Pennrose’s plan for rentals, was in “bad faith,” he said.

“The reality is that everyone listened and respected everybody else, and this is completely, in my opinion, disrespectful,” he said.

Contacted last week, Oppenheim declined to comment further.

Nicastro said Oppenheim’s suggestion that the two trust members resign because they expressed disagreement with the full committee vote was inappropriate.

“It’s unfortunate that dissenting opinion is apparently not tolerated on the affordable housing trust,” he said. Members of boards are not obligated to support a majority decision if they do not agree with it, he added. “I think anybody is free to express their thoughts about it and they should be commended for it, whether you agree or disagree,” he said.

Since the item was not on the agenda, “I think it was outrageous to even allow Mr. Oppenheim to speak,” Nicastro said.

McClelland said she was aware how Schell and Oppenheim felt about the letter but was surprised by the comments at the meeting and the lack of opportunity to respond.

“That was unexpected,” she said.

The conflict arose from McClelland and Beane’s support of the HAC proposal; McClelland said while members of the trust all support more affordable housing for the town, she believes homeownership, not just rentals, should be considered.

“That’s the better model,” she said. “I know we need rentals, but when homeownership comes in, I say grab it.”

A better way to handle the disagreement would have been to include the topic as an agenda item, she said. “But to do it under the comments from the chair, it’s not an agenda item, we can’t have a conversation about it. It’s kind of an abuse of authority.”

The letter was written to put forward the case for HAC and its homeownership proposal. She also wanted to make the case for a formal financial analysis of the competing proposals, something she said she asked for during previous discussions but was ignored. The proposals for both properties have differing financial requirements, ranging from the for-profit Pennrose proposing payments to the town to HAC’s request for $5.4 million in town funding.

Schell said he did not think a financial analysis was necessary, because of both the timing of the request and the expertise that already exists among the committee members.

“I personally think that we could not find a consultant with that array of backgrounds and experience, and most importantly who represents our community in a diverse way,” he said.

Beane said he continues to support the HAC proposal. “Chatham obviously needs affordable and attainable rentals,” he said. “But I think the right mix is we should probably have ownership opportunities if we want to build a community.” He added that he’s been assured there will be further opportunities for homeownership projects, probably on two other town-owned parcels — along Stepping Stones Road and on Old Harbor Road — but those will only generate a few units each, at most.

McClelland and Beane both said they do not intend to resign from the trust board. McClelland said she would support the final decision on a developer for both parcels because of the dire need for housing.

“I’ve waited so long and worked so hard, as have a lot of people, to be in this moment and have this opportunity for housing,” she said. “Whatever we seven people decide in this moment, it’s the culmination of what many, many people have been doing.”

Beane could not be reached for comment.