Chatham Rejects Funding For Major Projects; Leaves Transfer Station Upgrade, Bridge St. Work In Limbo

by Tim Wood
Chatham Select Board members vote at Monday’s annual town meeting. From left, Shareen Davis, Jeff Dykens, Michael Schell and Cory Metters. TIM WOOD PHOTO Chatham Select Board members vote at Monday’s annual town meeting. From left, Shareen Davis, Jeff Dykens, Michael Schell and Cory Metters. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Two major spending measures were rejected at Monday’s annual town meeting after failing to gain the two-third majority necessary to pass.

Voters also narrowly approved money for affordable housing while raising questions about the transparency of the process of choosing a developer for two projects currently in the works. A proposal to restrict homes to year-round occupancy was postponed, and voters endorsed exploration of a regional public swimming pool.

With no discussion, voters approved a $40,085,339 operating budget, a 5.2 percent increase, and $10,308,940 for the town’s share of the Monomoy Regional School District budget, which is up 6.2 percent.

Rejection of $2.9 million to complete improvements at the transfer station and a $11.4 million waterways infrastructure bond — which would have provided money to finish the 90 Bridge St. project — leaves those projects in limbo. The select board was scheduled to discuss the impact of the votes on the infrastructure projects at their meeting Tuesday. In an email Tuesday, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the natural resources and public works department staff are “actively engaging in internal discussions” regarding prioritizing or further phasing of the projects.

In addition, both the transfer station and waterways infrastructure funding are subject to Proposition 2½ overrides in Thursday’s annual town election. Goldsmith said if those questions pass, the select board could call a special town meeting “within a reasonable amount of time” to bring the same articles back before voters. “But that has not been discussed by the select board,” she said in the email.

Last year voters approved $4 million for the transfer station improvements, but bids for the work came in higher than anticipated, increasing the cost of the project to more than $7 million. Officials revised the plans, and working with additional available funds, narrowed the shortfall to complete the project to $2.9 million.

Elaine Gibbs questioned the design changes and asserted that costs could rise even more. She also asked voters to be cognizant of other potential expenditures in the future, such as upgrades to the center for active living, addressing PFAS contamination and renovations to the elementary school.

“You don’t have to be a math major to see these costs to taxpayers are potentially huge,” she said. A fall special town meeting is likely, and the transfer station funding should return then after new bids are sought, she said.

After the high bids came in, officials narrowed the design of the improvements to make the facility more efficient for users while trying to keep costs down, Public Works Director Rob Faley said.

A majority of voters supported the measure, but the 311-185 total failed to reach the two-thirds threshold required to borrow the funds.

The finance committee was split over the $11.4 million waterfront infrastructure bond article, said member Eric Whiteley, but supported it 6-3 because it would provide flexibility in management of projects and allow the town to apply for grants to reduce overall costs. Cost increases in projects, as well as a lack of communications with the fincom and community, raised concerns, he added.

Cost increases in the 90 Bridge St. project were clearly at the root of the fincom’s concerns. Construction of a new bulkhead, docks and piers and shellfish upweller ballooned to more than $11 million. The $2.2 million remaining in an $11.3 million waterfront infrastructure bond approved in 2017 is not enough to cover the total.

There are four other projects slated for funding through the new waterfront bond, said Natural Resources Director Greg Berman. Those projects include a walkway at the fish pier, improvements at the Ryder’s Cove town landing, and replacement of the Little Mill Pond pier.

“The bond provides flexibility,” Berman said, allowing officials to tackle projects in phases and make changes when unexpected conditions are encountered, such as an obstruction that caused delays in the recent fish pier south jog bulkhead replacement.

Having the bond funds available helps the town be more competitive when applying for state grants, added Micheal Westgate. The Bridge Street project has already received some state funding.

Shellfish advisory committee chair Bob Davis noted that the current shellfish upweller at Old Mill Boatyard is 26 years old and “falling apart.” The town’s robust shellfishery depends on seed grown in the facility, he added.

“It’s critical that it be replaced,” he said.

“I cannot vote for this,” said John Huether, adding that he’s never spoken against a waterfront project before. However, the Bridge Street project, which he said was originally sold as benefiting recreational boaters, has grown out of control, while nothing has been done to improve the busy Ryder’s Cove landing, which many recreational boaters use.

“I’m tired of this town wasting its money and its time,” he said.

The bond will help modernize the town’s waterfront infrastructure, improve coastal resilience, and benefit all waterways users, said select board member Shareen Davis.

Again, voters supported the article, but the 314-213 vote failed to reach the two-thirds threshold required for borrowing.

A request for $750,000 in community preservation funds for the affordable housing trust board ran into concern over how that group and the select board have handled proposals to develop town-owned parcels on Meetinghouse Road and Main Street in West Chatham. The groups have been reviewing the proposals behind closed doors and have not disclosed any details to the public.

Residents are being excluded from decision making, said Anne Timpson. “This is a form of taxation without representation,” she said. Giving funds to the trust, which can buy property or expend money without town meeting approval, will create a “spending spree” out of the control of voters, she said.

The issue boils down to transparency, said Seth Taylor. Voters should know what their money is buying before it is spent, and the process of reviewing proposals should be open. “Is this a democratic way to run a government? I don’t believe it is, and I think somebody is trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” he said.

Trust member David Oppenheim said the law requires that the proposal review process be confidential. “Let us do our job,” he said, adding that this is no time to slow down the process of establishing more affordable housing. “We need to accelerate; we need to move forward as quickly as possible,” he said.

Town Manager Jill Goldsmith, who as the town’s procurement officer will make a final recommendation on the proposals, said she has named the trust and select board as an evaluation committee which will make their ratings of the submissions public June 5. She will make her recommendations on developers June 11, and the original proposals will be included in the public packet for the meeting (see separate story on page 9).

The trust and select board get the message that residents aren’t happy with the process, said John Whelan, but the trust needs the CPC funds to be able to act quickly if land becomes available. The funding will “absolutely benefit the town of Chatham,” he said.

Voters agreed — just barely — approving the funding 261-247.

CPC funding for exterior renovations to the former Stage Harbor Coast Guard boathouse, which will be repurposed as the new shellfish upwelling building at 90 Bridge St., was approved, despite concerns over that project. The $350,000 will only be spent if and when the structure returns to Chatham from its current location in Quincy, noted Jack Farrell.

Other CPC projects approved included $100,000 for the new press box at Monomoy Regional High School and $136,786 to upgrade the little league field at the community center.

A nonbinding question urging officials to investigate a regional public swimming pool passed 185-108. Sponsor Roz Coleman said officials in Chatham, Harwich, Orleans and Brewster should pool resources to explore a pool, which would benefit people of all ages.

Harwich rejected a similar petition at its town meeting last week.

Another petition article asking that the select board submit legislation to allow the town to purchase deed restrictions limiting homes to year-round occupancy was indefinitely postponed.

The finance committee supported the idea as a creative way to address the housing crisis, said member Tracy Sheilds. Petitioner Karilyn McClelland said there is currently no mechanism to restrict a dwelling to year-round occupancy unless it is tied to affordability. The legislation would allow anyone, on a voluntary basis, to accept payment in exchange for a deed restriction requiring year-round occupancy, either by the homeowner or a renter.

Gibbs said the proposal needs more discussion. Timpson called it “vague and open-ended.” Farrell, however, said a negative vote would “send the wrong message” regarding the town’s commitment to housing and moved that the measure be postponed, which voters endorsed 208-52.

Voters also approved $1,735,000 for repairs to the town’s sewer system; $400,000 for dredging; $361,700 for a new roll-off truck for the transfer station; $170,000 for capital improvements at the airport, and a new tree protection bylaw.