Citizens Urge Momentum On ‘Community Sustainability’

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Community Sustainability

CHATHAM — The Chatham 365 Task Force and the town’s economic development committee have already identified steps the town can take to make itself a friendlier community for young families and other year-round residents. Now they’re seeking assurances that there’s a plan for implementing those ideas.

On Monday, selectmen reviewed a list of recommendations it received from the task force in September and an analysis submitted by the economic development committee on Dec. 19. Running the gamut from affordable housing and tax policy to construction of a community swimming pool, the ideas aim to make it more attractive and feasible for working people to live in Chatham 12 months of the year.

Under the area of economic empowerment, the ideas include improving high-speed internet service, providing tax breaks or other financial incentives to child care providers, and providing incentives for businesses that allow employees to work online from home.

“I think that’s an important one,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said.

A key recommendation is to adopt zoning bylaw amendments that encourage both affordable and “attainable” housing. Cocolis said the town needs to make progress here within the next year, or at least needs to identify a tract of town-owned land for development of affordable and market-rate housing. While the goal is ambitious, “I think it’s a short-term requirement to get it started.”

“This is a much heavier-lift item,” board member Cory Metters said. The planning board, charged with crafting changes to the zoning bylaw, already has a full workload, he noted. “I don’t think a year’s realistic,” but two years might be, Metters said. “Bylaws aren’t the easiest things to pass in this town.”

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said the board, with outside input, needs to develop a vision for any new housing developments, and the process will take at least two years. But creating housing opportunities is key “if we want to even attempt to keep young people in this town,” he said.

In the third category of “community buoyancy,” one recommendation included financial incentives for year-rounders looking to connect to the new sewer system, which can cost several thousand dollars. If those incentives come in the form of a subsidy, “I’m not sure that’s the direction I want to go in,” Selectman Dean Nicastro said. He also warned against the use of a residential tax exemption to provide tax breaks for year-round residents, an idea uniformly rejected by selectmen for years. “It’s a very divisive and controversial topic,” he said. Still, several other area communities are trying this approach, and it would be worthwhile reviewing their progress, Select Chair Shareen Davis said.

“There’s a lot of seniors in this town on fixed incomes” who have expensive properties and high tax bills, she noted.

In the area of the schools, the Monomoy district is already exploring ways to encourage the creation of universal preschool in Chatham, likely to be provided by a third party vendor. And in the FY21 budget, the town has already increased funding for the child care voucher program, helping ease that expense for some families.

In a bid to make housing more affordable, the task force recommended that the town encourage banks to work with real estate agents to offer a program to qualified year-round residents for properties under $400,000 before those properties are added to real estate listings. The town might also consider establishing a down payment assistance program for residents who are able to pre-qualify for a traditional mortgage but who cannot afford a 20 percent down payment. Dykens offered to approach at least one local bank about taking part in those initiatives.

Under the category of “civic vibrancy,” the task force recommended carefully reviewing ways that town meetings could be made more inclusive for working families, either by scheduling changes or through the use of technology. “We need to work toward developing a committee for that,” Davis said.

In addition to a senior center with inter-generational activities, the task force recommended creation of a community pool that would serve people of all ages. “Pools are expensive, and expensive to run,” Cocolis said. The board decided to reach out to the YMCA for an update on its previously announced plans to build a pool in Harwich.

The task force also recommended taking steps to improve communication between year-round residents and seasonal homeowners, helping summer residents better understand the challenges of living here full-time.

Luther Bates, chairman of the economic development committee, urged selectmen to divide up the suggestions and assign them to others. “I think it’s imperative that we start to delegate,” he said. Bates recommended identifying groups to work on each recommendation, and having them report back in 90 days with a plan for implementation. Doing so is “the key to getting a complex problem accomplished,” he said. Bates said his group has volunteered to analyze a proposal to provide tax breaks for people with year-round rentals.

Bates also recommended creating a task force to consider a new vision for town meeting.

“We agree,” Davis said.

Former task force member Danielle Tolley said the effort needs a guiding document in the form of a community sustainability plan.

“I urge you to see that as really, really critical,” she said. Funds are now being sought for a consultant to convene a visioning session that might generate such a plan. But the document would need to look holistically at the problems of year-round residents, not just affordable housing or job creation. “We’re not just talking about one or two aspects of sustainability,” Tolley said.

Resident Stephen Buckley agreed on the need for a plan and a dedicated committee to track its progress. Otherwise, it risks having components that are never implemented, like parts of the town’s current long-range comprehensive plan.

Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said she would revise a chart showing progress on the various suggestions and bring it back to the board of selectmen for consideration as soon as possible.