Chatham resident and former long-time finance committee member Roslyn Coleman posed an interesting – and certainly “outside the box” – proposition at Monday's meeting of the board of selectmen. With the conversion of year-round houses to summer homes one of the factors driving up real estate prices and making it difficult for young families to stay in town, and with demolition of modest homes one of the main ways this is being accomplished, why not put a halt to these tear downs?
The town wrestled with building moratoriums in the past – most notably during the 1980s building boom – but powerful development forces kept that from happening. A tear-down ban would be different; it wouldn't stop construction or development altogether, and may not even accomplish the purpose Coleman has in mind. There would be nothing to stop a developer from buying a modest home, renovating it and adding a substantial addition. That sort of approach does tend to be more expensive, however, and a moratorium on tear downs could preserve some lower-end homes, which, theoretically, would then be available for working residents and families with children.
The goal is to slow or stop the inexorable decline in the number of children in town, as expressed through school enrollment. This year's Chatham Elementary School kindergarten class has 27 kids; next year school officials are projecting an enrollment of 20. There are 35 fewer school-age kids in Chatham this year than last. And that counts all the school-age kids in town, including those who attend other districts or charter schools, according to Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter. Chatham simply has fewer children every year, and there's no indication that trend will change. The impact is a shift in financial support for the schools to Harwich, which this year has 14 more kids in the system than last year. Harwich isn't happy about this now; as the disparity grows, it's going to become more and more of a problem. And although Chatham residents are benefiting now, at least financially, dropping enrollment at the elementary level could make elementary redistricting a necessity, a prospect that drew significant opposition last year.
But would a tear-down moratorium help the situation? It's almost impossible to tell. It could make a dent, if the town and other entities are willing to help create affordable or even “attainable” housing out of those modest homes that won't be knocked down to make way for summer mansions. That will require a concerted effort involving the town, regional nonprofits and private groups such as the one that recently purchased a small home on Crowell Road and is selling it to the town's affordable housing trust fund to rent at an affordable rate. Certainly it's an idea worth exploring, but it will take time and effort to both quantify and justify. We encourage selectmen to take Coleman's advice and look into the benefits of a tear-down moratorium, but not for implementation in the upcoming spring town meeting. The situation is serious, but not yet dire, and a more deliberate investigation that answers what are likely to be many questions and concerns is appropriate.