CHATHAM – Despite warnings that delays would escalate costs, concerns about the size and location of a new senior center led voters to reject the $6.6 million project and send it back to the drawing board on the first night of the annual town meeting.
Also Monday, voters approved a zoning bylaw that will allow the creation of apartments in single-family homes, which advocates say will increase the stock of market rate housing and help young people remain in town.
About half the 71-article warrant was completed Monday. Voters returned Tuesday to address the remaining measures as well as a one-article special town meeting (see separate story).
Discussion of the deficiencies of the current senior center on Stony Hill Road began in 2011 but were put off so officials could focus on a new fire station, said COA Board Chair David Speciale. A 2015 needs assessment led to development of preliminary plans for a new senior center, which were refined after voters approved $100,000 for design and engineering at last year's town meeting. The plan before town meeting called for a 10,150-square-foot single-story structure with a large multipurpose room, kitchen, two large program rooms, offices and conference space, situated on town property on Middle Road. Speciale said the Friends of the Council on Aging committed $250,000 toward the project based on the current plans.
Borrowing for the project would cost the owner of a $750,000 home $1,005 over 20 years, or $52.11 per year, said Finance Director Alix Heilala.
The Middle Road location drew significant criticism. Speciale said it was chosen after all other town-owned properties and two private parcels were reviewed and eliminated. But Herb Bassett said the site is too far from the center of town and Middle Road is winding and narrow. The steeply sloped parcel will be expensive to develop, he added.
“We don't feel this is the right place,” he said. Finance Committee member Norma Avellar agreed, saying the building was “so far removed from the town,” was too expensive and not well thought out. Bruce Gibbs also didn't like the location and said the building was “way too small for this kind of money.”
“I'm looking at this as the possibility of another grand palace with minimal use,” said former Selectman Seth Taylor.
Bernard Pfeifer challenged those who oppose the location to come up with a better one. He agreed that compromises were made, but said “I think this is the best solution.”
Delaying the project will only make it more costly, said COA Vice Chairman Barbara Segall. She noted that a one-year delay in the fire station project resulted in a nearly $1 million increase and a smaller building.
“If tonight's proposal for a new senior center is defeated, it will certainly cost more next year, and the following year,” she said.
COA Friends President Judy Hamblin said programs have to be held elsewhere because the current senior center is inadequate, and has been for more than a decade.
“Our seniors deserve better than that,” she said. COA officials patiently waiting while new police, fire and other town buildings were constructed. “Now is our time,” she said.
Because it involved borrowing, the measure required a two-thirds majority to pass, but the 284-219 vote failed to reach that level. David Whitcomb then offered a nonbinding resolution urging selectmen to begin a new site selection process to include all town-owned land as well as privately-owned parcels. Private land that meets the criteria for a new senior center could probably be found, said Pfeifer, but the issue is cost.
“How much do you want to spend?” he said.
“I'd much rather see my tax rate go up a couple of pennies per thousand for the right location,” said Bassett. COA member Carole DeCristopher said time is of the essence. Two senior housing facilities in the area recently closed, she said, indicating that more seniors are aging in place and require the services of the council on aging.
“We absolutely need to get this done sooner rather than later,” she said.
The resolution passed on a voice vote. A debt exemption question for the senior center appears on Thursday's annual town election ballot but is now moot due to the defeat.
The zoning bylaw amendment allowing accessory dwelling units in single-family homes includes a number of restrictions, said Planning Board Chairman Kathryn Halpern. Units are limited to no more than 900 square feet and are only allowed in homes occupied by the owner year round. Renters must also live in the units year round and a 12-month lease must be submitted to the town annually. ADUs are allowed by right on properties that meet all current zoning requirements; ADUs on nonconforming properties or in separate structures require a special permit from the zoning board of appeals. Halpern said 70 percent of lots in town fall under the special permit requirement. ADUs are limited to 10 by-right and 10 by special permit annually. There is also a five-year amnesty for preexisting ADUs. The planning board will revisit the bylaw in two years to determine if changes need to be made, she added.
The measure is designed to provide housing for young people, families and seniors. There are no caps so the market will determine the rent, Halpern said.
The units will go to the highest bidders and won't help those who can't afford Chatham's high housing costs, said Norman Pacun. There are many unanswered questions about the proposal, which he said will change the town's predominantly single-family neighborhoods by allowing two-family homes.
“The claim that it won't result in overdevelopment is specious,” he said.
Debby Ecker said the proposal represents a “fundamental change” that will weaken the town's zoning bylaw, and Dona Alexander said it will be a “free pass to create a summer family compound.” David Macadam said if the town is serious about retaining young people local businesses need to pay a living wage.
Resident Ann Van Vleck, chief development officer at the Housing Assistance Corporation, said the Cape has 3,000 year-round housing units in the last five years, and Chatham's housing is now “a jaw-dropping” 60 percent seasonal. More availability of market-rate housing will lower rents, she said.
“If we continue to lack the necessary inventory, we will continue to see our town disappear, because our locals can't afford to stay here,” she said. A number of Cape towns have approved ADU bylaws, including Brewster, Harwich and Eastham, and adoption here will help “keep Chatham a thriving, year-round community.”
Selectman Peter Cocolis noted that no units have been created under an existing ADU bylaw that imposes affordability restrictions. “We know that does not work,” he said. The proposed measure contains more restrictions than are currently in place for summer rentals, he added.
“The year-round economy can't survive without a year-round workforce living in year-round housing,” he said. ADU's “aren't a cure, but it's a critical first step.”
David Oppenheim said the neighborhood that is usually cited as having the most “Chatham” character, the Old Village, is also dense and has many existing apartments within homes. He owns a number of year-round apartments in town and has a waiting list “a mile long.”
“This is just a start to meet the needs of the town,” he said.
“No one complains about having too many small houses, we all complain about having too many big homes in Chatham,” said David Wilber. “I would much rather have more year-round residents living in smaller homes than summer residents who spend a few weeks in the big homes.”
The article passes the two-thirds majority threshold needed to amend the zoning bylaw, 360-123.
Voters also approved adding $30,000 to the Chatham Childcare Voucher Program. A move to amend the measure to restrict vouchers to Chatham residents (currently families who work in town are also eligible) was ruled outside the scope of the article.
Earlier in the meeting, the $30,882,921 operating budget, $9,417,256 Monomoy and Cape Tech school appropriations, $2,805,745 capital plan and $3,171,449 water department budget were all approved with little or no discussion.
Voters also approved carrying over $300,000 in Nantucket Sound beach nourishment funding appropriated last year to be used this year for Chatham Harbor dredging.
Fourteen Community Preservation Act funding articles passed. They included $30,000 for an affordable housing coordinator; $100,000 for the town's affordable housing trust fund; a $7,5000 contribution to the Cape Housing Initiative; a $50,000 contribution to the two-house “Forward at the Rock” project in Dennis for adults with severe autism; $28,000 for a bike warning light at the Old Colony Rail Trail crossing at Route 137; $25,000 for a croquet court at Chase Park; $12,000 for public water bottle refilling stations; $295,000 for equipment and renovations at the two playgrounds at Chatham Elementary School; $55,000 for a pathway at the rear portion of Chase Park; $48,000 for the third and final year of the archaeological dig at the Nickerson Family Association on Orleans Road; $2,000 to restore a circa 1800 door at the Atwood House; $50,000 to repair the wooden caboose at the Chatham Railroad Museum; and $15,000 to repair 17 headstones from the mid 1800s at four town cemeteries.
There was some opposition to a measure seeking $79,000 in CPA funds to clear invasive species and create a walking trail and picnic area on the Marconi triangle overlooking Ryder's Cove. Over the years there have been several plans for the parcel, which is part of the town-owned Marconi/MCI property, which resident Roz Coleman was placed on the National Register of Historic Places 25 years ago. Former Selectman Seth Taylor said the land was originally envisioned as part of an expanded Ryder's Cove landing, and charter fisherman Darren Saletta said parking at the landing is at a premium and adding trails will make it more crowded.
“Leave it alone,” he said of the triangle.
But Barbara Cotnam said improvements to the land have been in the works for 15 years, and the project will provide a place for people to enjoy the parcel's 800 feet of waterfront. Currently, 35 percent of the property is covered by invasive species, which will be removed as part of the project. The Friends of Ryder's Cove have raised $8,000 toward the work, she added.
“I think this is a win for all of Chatham, really,” she said. The article passed on a voice vote.
Questions were also raised about a $362,000 CPA expenditure to purchase a home at 466 Crowell Rd. and add it to the MCI Rent Escrow program. Under the program, half the monthly rent is escrowed and returned after five years for use as a downpayment on a house. Taylor said few of the renters have bought homes in Chatham, and it doesn't make sense to promote a program that results in families leaving town. Tracy Canon, who administers the program for the housing authority, said all of the renters have purchased homes on the Cape. The measure passed, as did a subsequent article authorizing the selectmen to purchase the Crowell Road property, which is being held by a private group that hopes to buy homes to add to the town's affordable housing stock.