Andrew Buckley: Chatham Is Not A Place

“Why is Chatham on a different path than other communities in Massachusetts?”

I suspect mine will not be the only voice raised to provide an answer to Beverly Nelson’s question posed in last week’s letter to the editor. Why should her taxes, as a second homeowner, be used by the town of Chatham to provide services to families that otherwise would not be able to afford to live here? Other than state-mandated affordable housing initiatives, that is.

To begin with, Natick, from which Ms. Nelson hails, is a bedroom community. In Chatham there is no urban hub to which residents can commute to earn a decent income. With a similar cost of living, but a 40 percent lower pay scale, it’s not a workable model. Suburban Boston residents can pick and choose which community suits them and their needs because they have a factory job within reach by highway and public transportation.

Chatham, and on a greater scale, the whole Cape, is surrounded by water. Options are limited. Unlike Natick, there is no heading east on commuter rail to a professional job in the city. There is no jumping on the Pike to go west, either. Maybe there might be a nice low-to-middling service job north on Route 28. Or get in a boat, go south, and risk your life in one of the most dangerous jobs in the country – commercial fishing.

We are different because our geography is different. We are different because our economy is different. And many is the time when I have lived in and outside Boston and asked, “Why do these places do things so differently from Chatham?”
It was not a favorable comparison. The tax rate in Natick is over $15, while Chatham’s is just under $5.
That’s not correct. I didn’t ask why they did things so differently. The question I asked myself was not so polite.

And it wasn’t a question. It was more direct: “Now I know why all you people want to come to here.”

Surely, it must be nice to own more than one home. When I was a selectman, I recall receiving the report of the head of the non-residents taxpayers committee, noting that I was elected, in part, to represent the non-taxpaying residents. Meaning, people who worked full time in town whose incomes were falling behind the escalating housing costs.

You see, there are more people in the world willing to pay through the nose for just a place to stay for just a few days than there are people who live here. Far more. These people don’t want to have a weekend in Natick, Wellesley or even Boston. Demand, as they say in economics, is nearly infinite. Supply is static.

My fellow board member, Harvey Huetter, who had previously served on the finance committee and was a real fiscal hawk, would say at budget time, “You can have anything you want – a new town hall with gold toilet fixtures and cops driving Mercedes – as long as you are willing to pay for it.”

So as a town, a community, part of a commonwealth, we have come together to decide that yes, we do want to have a more balanced year-round population. After all, a town of working families built the town so many people now find attractive. It wasn’t a resort or a real estate corporation that made Chatham memorable. The children and grandchildren of these people are not, we have decided, to be the collateral damage, the economic refugees of the town’s recent desirability.

Explicitly, Chatham Town Meeting passed a long range comprehensive plan declaring:

“If anything is clear, it is that Chathamites strongly desire a quality of life based upon the continuing historical presence and character of a small town with its overriding feeling of Cape Cod — human scale, a seaside atmosphere and physical beauty. They firmly want to protect against those things that would threaten that way of life [to include]:

- the possible loss of the fishing industry which is important not only to the economy of the town but also to its character and history.

- an ever-increasing influx of people, especially during summer months, giving residents the perception of being crowded out.”

The same people who have been responsible for keeping the taxes far below Natick’s for over 30 years are the people who are now deciding that some small part of the current largesse from popularity should go to remediate the economic damage resulting there from.

However, this is really an opportunity to look at ourselves. There has been a great uproar in response to Ms. Nelson’s letter. It is not unfamiliar, much like the questions of people from away who ask whether there are actually schools here, or such, implying, “Does life really go on here once I leave at the end of the summer?”

Sadly, as prices have climbed, we have encountered more recently a stripe of second homeowner who does not see themselves as having moved into a distinct community. Rather, Chatham is a checkmark on a box of affluent life list. Get right job. Buy right car. Married right partner. Send kids to right school. Summer house in right place. What does Coastal Living recommend?

Gates are showing up on driveways. Gates. In Chatham, which is as safe as the surface of the moon. Cars are parked, more and more, facing the wrong way along Main Street downtown. Obliviously, and with little regard to the relatively paltry cost of a ticket compared to parking all day in any city. Trees blocking water views cut down without regard to ownership. Again, fines are barely worth the time to write the check.

We are replacing working resident families in our housing stock with people who don’t care about anything more than a label – a brand – for Chatham that we have allowed to be created. By failing to act, we choose to let that which makes this town different die.

That is our current failing as community, and our responsibility to set right.

Because, to paraphrase Anthony Hopkins (as Odin): “Chatham is not a place. It’s a people. Even now, right now, those people need your help.”