Chatham 365 Task Force Finalizing Recommendations

By: Tim Wood

Providing financial incentives to property owners who rent homes year-round rather than seasonally is one of the preliminary recommendations of the Chatham 365 task force. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Almost a year after it was established, the Chatham 365 task force is preparing to bring a series of recommendations to the board of selectmen to address the group's goal of encouraging a diverse, sustainable, year-round population.

The task force's proposals range from taxation and zoning changes to economic incentives, sharing beach stickers with Harwich, building a community pool and moving the annual town meeting to Saturday. Selectmen will hear a presentation on the task force's recommendations at the board's Sept. 30 meeting.

The task force was established last November out of a growing concern that year-round residents, especially young families, were being squeezed out by the town's high real estate prices and lack of well-paying year-round jobs. There was also concern over a lack of housing options for older residents. The group's charge was to investigate ways to encourage and sustain an age-diverse, self-sustaining year-round community.

A few tentative steps toward that goal have already been taken. At May's annual town meeting, voters approved an accessory dwelling unit zoning bylaw allowing apartments in single-family homes, with the goal of adding to the town's meager stock of market rental units. Community development officials say they have had inquiries about establishing ADUs, but they are holding off on issuing permits until the bylaw is approved by the Attorney General. As of early this week, Town Clerk Julie Smith said she has not received a ruling from the Attorney General's office, which has until Sept. 4 to issue a decision.

Also at town meeting, voters added $30,000 to the town's childcare voucher program, bringing the total available to residents to help with childcare costs to $55,000. That was a compromise after the task force recommended that the town cover pre-school costs for all local families.

That recommendation sparked a controversy last winter when a summer resident suggested in a letter to the editor in The Chronicle that taxpayer funds should not be used to subsidize pre-school. The resulting discussion, often heated, helped drive attendance at two public forums sponsored by the task force to allow residents to tell their stories and propose ideas and solutions to the dilemma of creating a sustainable, year-round community.

“It was a good experience,” Shareen Davis, chairman of selectmen and a member of the task force, said of the forums. “We'd love to have these things happen all the time.”

Many of the suggestions the task force is shaping into recommendations for the selectmen came from those two forums, as well as other input the group has received, Davis said. The long list of dozens of items is being prioritized and grouped into categories. Although the list is wide-ranging, there are quite a few commonalities, Davis said.

“It seems like it was pretty clear cut what people were talking about,” she said.

The task force considered a wide range of suggestions made at the forums, through other communications, and discussed in the group's workshops, including a higher tax rate for non-residents; making house flipping less attractive; extending high-speed internet throughout town; allow higher density zoning; limiting the size of new construction; attracting an academic institution to town; lower house downpayments for working families; and creating more off-season business through more town events.

Those and other ideas where narrowed and prioritized at the task force's last meeting on Aug. 7. Items that received the most support included raising property taxes for non-resident homeowners; providing tax breaks for owners who rent property year-round rather than seasonally; moving town meeting to Saturday; childcare assistance for all ages; allowing a seafood processing facility to open in town; allowing more apartments and townhouses; changing the zoning bylaw to encourage these goals; a community pool; providing financial assistance to year-round residents for sewer connections; allowing year-round residents to share beach stickers with Harwich; and increasing the minimum wage in town to $15 an hour.

Those, and possibly other recommendations, will be grouped into four categories: economic empowerment; community buoyancy; civic vibrancy; and dynamic zoning. That will provide a “clear, consistent and compelling” to help focus the recommendations on the task force's goals, said member Brad Schiff.

Some of the “big picture” recommendations, such as zoning, property tax changes and establishing a local minimum wage, will take time, Davis noted. Just a few weeks ago, selectmen rejected a property tax break for year-round residents, for instance, but seemed open to considering it in the future. She hopes that there can be other recommendations that can be acted on fairly quickly. One recommendation that drew considerable support from task force members and those at the forums was moving the annual town meeting to Saturday (that requires a simple majority vote to change the town's general bylaws, which currently require that the annual town meeting be held on the second Monday of May). That gets at one of the task force's main, though perhaps unstated, goals.

“I think what we're trying to do is build community,” Davis said.

There are town boards working on some of the items already; the planning board is slowly working toward changes to the zoning bylaw, most of which dates from the late 1980s, for instance. Davis would like to see the task force's work coalesce into a strategic plan that department heads and committees could use as an overall policy guide when making decisions.

“It's a question of making it a more cohesive directive,” she said.

Peter Cocolis, a selectman and task force member, said he'd like to see some of the “low hanging fruit” be implemented as soon as possible, perhaps through a vote at a planned fall special town meeting.

“If there's something that makes sense and we can make a recommendation for it, I think we can do something” sooner rather than later, he said. He said addressing affordable and “accessible” housing is the top concern, followed by encouraging more year-round businesses in town.

“But the good news is, once you start talking about something, and you keep on talking about it, it seems to me we're going to get a lot more traction than we did before,” including buy-in among towns, countywide and even statewide. Economic development, especially, need to be done on a regional level, he said, with assistance from Barnstable County and the state.

The task force meets this Wednesday to hone its recommendations. Members will also add their own suggestions to the mix.

“We haven't given our own thoughts to this. We've just been facilitating other people's thoughts and comments,” said Davis.

The task force discussions have been an empowering experience, she added.

“This group is really interested in doing some good work for the town,” she said. “It's a dynamic group, [many of whom] are the people being impacted by all this. It's been one of my better experiences as a selectman.”