Sustainability Task Force Gains Momentum

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Economic development

The lack of affordable housing is one of the challenges to the town's sustainability.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM Finding ways to attract and retain year-round residents is more than an exercise in strategic planning; it’s an urgent task that deserves immediate attention, selectmen said Monday. The board is hoping to convene a new task force shortly that will examine ways to encourage a sustainable year-round population that includes all age groups, not just young families.

“This is really the number one priority for the town of Chatham,” board Chairman Dean Nicastro said. Steps need to be taken to increase affordability for year-round families, “so we don’t become a museum of expensive homes” that are empty most of the year, he said.

Selectman Peter Cocolis said the affordability gap is an unintended consequence of some of the town’s successes: its high property values and its strong efforts to limit growth and protect natural resources.

“We live in a place that’s desirable to everyone,” he said, but the number of senior citizens in town is growing quickly, while there are fewer and fewer young families in town. “We expect these trends will continue,” he said.

Board member Shareen Davis said there have already been some informal meetings with interested citizens, and there was a strong reaction on social media following The Chronicle’s first article about the task force in September.

“There was a lot of outcry,” she said. “There was a lot of concern that we were only talking about young families,” and not working adults “who are the backbone of our community,” Davis said. As a result, organizers are stressing the need for age-diverse, self-sustaining year-round community, and have branded the effort “Chatham 365.”

Davis said organizers are proposing a task force of between nine and 11 members, possibly including people who are not Chatham residents but who work in town, to recommend concrete actions for ways the town can support its year-round working residents.

“The bottom line is, we want to implement an action plan with accountability,” she said. The board did not take action on past recommendations of the economic development committee, including ones designed to support young families, Davis noted. “Things get lost in the process sometimes,” but this effort will include follow-through, she said.

Some of the task force’s recommendations could likely be implemented quickly, and others might require funding or town meeting approval, Davis said.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said it will take time for a large committee to recommend action items that the town can support, and said he believes the ultimate focus will be on jobs and affordable housing. While Dykens said he’s not sure what sorts of town policies might help, “there’s a lot of creative stuff out there that we’re perhaps not considering,” possibly including the use of tax credits as incentives.

Nicastro said the viability of Chatham as a community is at stake, and he supports taking a broader focus that is “not just limited to one demographic.”

Key to the success of the task force will be involving year-round residents who can describe the problems they face living in town, Davis said. “We need to be engaging the people who are being impacted, and we’re not,” she said.

Resident Norma Avellar said affordable early childhood education is a key ingredient for working families. The town should consider ways to provide free preschool services, which could spare families thousands of dollars in child care costs every year. “Think of what it would do for them,” she said. Similar comments were made at last week's budget summit by Monomoy Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter, who said families need year-round child care to hold on to steady year-round jobs. Recent demographic shifts among Chatham Elementary School students indicate that there's a need for free child care services.

Resident Michael Westgate said he is glad to see the “sense of urgency” from selectmen, which he said is appropriate. The number of people between the ages of 25 and 44 years has dropped by half in the last 25 years, he noted. “It’s a decrease in the lifeblood of the community,” he said. Westgate proposed consideration of a $15 hourly minimum wage for town employees and contractors doing business with the town, and ambitious targets for the number of local people hired for such jobs.

Westgate also urged selectmen to direct the Monomoy Regional School Committee to do what is necessary to keep Chatham Elementary School intact for kindergarten through fourth grade students. He said it might even be appropriate to declare a moratorium on building demolitions until the town has a fully funded housing plan, or requiring developers to demonstrate that an affordable property will be retained for every high-end home they build. Westgate suggested using millions of dollars of revenue from the Harwich sewer deal to support the effort.

“Don’t take the easy route and just pay down the debt,” he said.

There is already strong interest among citizens seeking to serve on the task force, officials said. Davis and Cocolis will recommend a list of applicants to be interviewed by the board of selectmen, with the goal of convening that group quickly.