Main Street Condo Plan Under Fire

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning , Housing and homelessness , Zoning/land use , Affordable housing

These apartment buildings at 782 Main St. will be demolished and replaced by condominiums under a proposal now before town boards. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Affordable Housing Issue 'Irrelevant,' Says Zoning Board

CHATHAM – The loss of workforce housing to upscale residences, one of the main concerns of those worried about the inability of young families to afford to live in town, has become a focus of a proposal to replace run-down apartments on Main Street with high-end condominiums.

Opponents say the plan will force working people out of what are now four moderately priced rental apartments at 782 Main St. so the buildings can be demolished and three luxury condominiums built in their place. It's another step in the “gentrification” of Chatham, said resident Gloria Freeman.

“Housing availability and affordability is one of the main reasons young families and young people move out of Chatham,” she told the zoning board of appeals during a hearing Sept. 27 on the proposal. “Things are out of balance and I believe we all acknowledge that we need to take action to reverse this trend.”

Development company Cape Associates, which owns the buildings located behind their Chatham office, claims the structures are in such poor shape they can't be renovated. “We believe what we have before you is a great improvement to the property,” principle Matthew Cole said at the hearing. He agreed the Cape needs more housing. “This is a great site for it,” he said.

Attorney Benjamin Zehnder acknowledged the current units are “low-end” rental apartments and that the units that replace them will be sold as condominiums. The proposal doesn't change the use of the property, he said, and actually decreases its density and nonconformity by reducing the number of residential units on the lot from five to four (there is a one-bedroom apartment in the Cape Associates building).

Others questioned the legality of the existing apartments and charged the requested variances and special permits far exceed what is allowed under the zoning bylaw.

The board of selectmen recently voted to establish a task force to study how to keep young families in town, and in doing so, board members suggested that boards and committees consider that objective in their decisions, Freeman said.

“Well, here's your chance,” she told the zoning board.

But that's not going to happen, ZBA members said.

“It is not this board's decision or purview to tell this applicant that they have to have affordable housing,” said member Robert Hessler. The board, he added, must focus on the technical details of the request as it relates to the zoning bylaw. “I think affordable housing is irrelevant.”

Zehnder concurred. “Your job is not to decide what type of housing should be where in town,” he told the board. “That's a function of town meeting and the bylaw.”

Chairman of Selectmen Dean Nicastro agreed that the zoning board has to hue to the zoning bylaw when making its decisions, and if the town wants affordable housing to be considered in the process, the bylaw needs to be changed.

“Otherwise you're opening up to so much subjectivity,” he said.

The 782 Main St. project has already been to the historic business district commission, which approved the demolition of the existing structures and the design of the new buildings, and has been before the planning board several times.

The new buildings will be one and a half story Greek Revival style structures, said architect Leslie Schneeberger, associate principal at Siemasko and Verbridge, and will be slightly larger than the existing structures. There are several nonconformities on the property, including setbacks, and the lack of the required square footage for apartments incidental to commercial use. There are a total of five apartments on the property and the bylaw requires 10,000 square feet for each incidental apartment. The lot has 18,282 square feet.

The two buildings slated for demolition have a total of eight bedrooms; they will be replaced by one building with three units and another structure containing a three-car garage.

Attorney Peter Farber, a member of the planning board who said he was speaking as a private citizen, questioned the legality of the current structures. Although both date from around 1900, according to the town's assessing records, they were moved to the property in 1985. Initially the zoning board turned down a request for the apartments, he said, citing the failure to meet the square footage requirement for incidental apartments. But building permits were later granted. Initially one building was allowed to have two apartments, and the second was permitted as a lounge for the office at the front of the parcel. A building permit was later granted to convert the lounge to apartments, but Farber claimed no zoning relief was ever granted, making the structures illegal.

While there is a statute of limitations in state law essentially allowing illegal structure to remain after six years, Farber said that exemption doesn't cover use. Under the zoning bylaw, which was in existence when the two buildings were permitted on the site, three of the apartments are “essentially unlawful,” he said.

He was also critical of the plan to replace workforce apartments with what he suggested would be townhouses that “will command a very significant price.”

“We're replacing workforce housing with upscale housing,” he said.

Resident Elaine Gibbs also objected to the variances and special permits being requested, saying the proposal is counter to the intent of the zoning bylaw and the new buildings will be massive and overwhelm the neighborhood.

“This project eliminates four two-bedroom affordable rentals, displacing tenants with nothing to replace them,” she said. There is no hardship as the board is required to find to grant a variance, she suggested. “Wanting to turn a nonconforming property with an assessed value of $815,000 into a multi-million dollar project is not a basis, in my view, for hardship relief.”

The neglect the buildings have apparently suffered is not a reason for approving the project either, Freeman added.

“This proposal sets a bad precedent,” she said. The town has lost many inns and other businesses to residential development “because it's far more profitable for developers than maintaining the intended commercial use,” she said.

Zehnder said the proposal will be a “visual improvement” to the area and won't change the use of the parcel or vary from the intended uses in the district.

“We don't think having the apartment use here is going to conflict in any way with the use of the downtown area of Chatham as a good mix of residential and commercial uses,” he said.

Given the questions raised about the legality of the use, zoning board members agreed to seek advice from town counsel. The hearing was continued to Nov. 1.

A man who answered the door at one of the apartments on Monday declined to comment on the proposal.