CHATHAM — Saying the time for rhetoric has passed, the board of selectmen this week resolved to find concrete steps to help attract and retain young families in town. They voted to create a task force to investigate the town’s demographic and economic imbalances, ultimately leading to actions designed to ease the burdens on young working families.
Census data confirms what most people already know: the population of Chatham is aging, with one of the highest median ages in the state and dwindling numbers of teenagers. With 25 births recorded last year compared to 175 deaths, “that’s kind of a clarion call that things are out of balance,” resident Michael Westgate told the board Monday. Considering the income reported by Chatham residents, 51 percent comes from trust funds, investments and other non-wage sources, compared to a state average of 22 percent.
Only 44 percent of Chatham homes are used for year-round housing, compared to 58 percent in Harwich and 59 percent in Orleans. Westgate said that three family homes in his immediate neighborhood were recently purchased and replaced by large seasonal homes, with many of the properties in town occupied a few weeks out of the year.
“This problem’s getting worse, not better,” he said.
Resident Lindsay Bierwirth, who has two elementary school-age children, said it is difficult for her peers to attend public meetings that happen on weekday evenings and so they are often not part of the discussion. She said that the town has been particularly helpful to her and her husband as they worked to establish a new business in town, but said the school system plays an important role in helping young families, too.
“If you want to retain and bring younger families in this town, we need to have our own elementary school,” Bierwirth said. She criticized the Monomoy Regional School System for considering a plan to send some Chatham students to Harwich, and send some Harwich kids to Chatham, in a bid to better equalize the elementary school populations.
“You look at the churches, and they’re empty, these days, of young families,” she said.
“We do have a dearth of young families,” resident and housing advocate Bill Bystrom said. Any number of small steps can ease the burden on families, like setting aside plots in the community garden for lower-income residents or giving a preference for local applicants for town jobs. Local businesses could get a boost through town-supported high-speed internet services or tax breaks, he said. “We need to think out of the box,” he said.
“We have a seasonal economy and we have an aging economy,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis. The town’s economy is driven by vacationers and summer residents, he noted. “Are we going to point the finger at them?” The town has invested heavily – both in public funds and in committees – in preserving history, culture, water quality, buildings and aesthetics. “How many boards and committees or things are looking at the people who are part of it?” he asked.
Board member Shareen Davis agreed, saying there needs to be a shift in the town’s commitment toward supporting young families. The town focuses much of its efforts on building infrastructure and preserving community character, “and we haven’t really given a lot of thought to our community as a community,” she said. Davis said she favors hiring a facilitator to work with a task force, town committees and department heads to find ways to support young families, moving the process ahead “and not just in rhetoric.”
Selectman Cory Metters agreed, saying that the people in this age group are mostly absent from the discussion. He proposed having a session at a better time, possibly at the community center where child care could be provided during the meeting.
“We’ve got to get the young voices to chime in on this,” he said.
A task force and strategic planning session is a good start, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said, “but I also think that there needs to be in the inclusion of the private sector.” Job creation is important and more housing needs to be available for workers. Affordable housing is a challenge because supply outstrips demand when it comes to property in Chatham, he said. Land, he said, “gets dearer every day,” and it will take an investment in jobs and affordable housing to change that.
“So does the town want to make those investments?” Dykens asked. “Does the town have the stomach to actually spend their money? That’s what we have to actually test,” he said.
Board Chairman Dean Nicastro said that decades ago, houses in his neighborhood had lights on all winter, and now it’s mostly dark. Truro has strong limits on the sizes of new houses, he said. “We have a nonconformity bylaw that you can drive a truck through,” he said. The town should tighten its zoning bylaw to make it less attractive for wealthy out-of-towners to knock down small family houses and build large vacation homes that are empty most of the year.
The town appointed an economic development committee several years ago, charging it in part with finding ways to attract and retain young families.
“We’ve been looking at this for a couple of years now,” Chairman Luther Bates told the board. The committee recommended that the town reject increases in fees for town services that are most likely to affect “this vulnerable demographic,” he said. That message has not been embraced by town department heads, Bates said. If the selectmen adopted a policy requiring the town to consider the impact of all such fee increases on young families, “that would show the town that you’re behind this 100 percent,” he said.
Bystrom agreed. The transfer station recently raised its fee for brush disposal from $2 to $5 a bag, he noted. For a working person bringing in four bags of brush, the cost jumps from $8 to $20. “That’s an additional hour’s work to bring your brush to the dump,” he said.
The economic development committee also acknowledged the high cost of housing and recommended steps to offset the other high expenses faced by young families, including child care. The committee formally recommended that the town look at ways of subsidizing child care.
“Everybody said, OK, good idea. And then nothing happened,” Bates said. The topic has been a pending agenda item for the board of selectmen for more than two years, he said.
On a motion by Dykens, the board voted unanimously to direct Town Manager Jill Goldsmith and selectmen Davis and Cocolis to recommend the size and composition of a new task force, possibly leading to a strategic planning session and a plan that recommends concrete actions. The board will review the task force proposal at its Oct. 22 meeting.
“I think we recognize that there’s got to be follow-through,” Metters said.