Our View: Form Follows Dysfunction


And then there were two.

Houses, that is.

Just this week, a small house on Crowell Road in Chatham was torn down and a foundation poured for a new dwelling. Immediately in front of it, hard by the street, is another new house well along in the construction process. Where once there was one modest home on a single lot, there are now two lots and, eventually, there will be two oversized houses.

That's not the only spot in town where residential lots are being squeezed to the max. Drive by the former Bank of America site on Old Harbor Road and take a gander at the two trophy homes there. A property that recently sold on Seaview Street is being split into two lots, and a new home will further crowd that once-scenic but now congested roadway.

This is, and has been for some time, the trend in residential development. The days of subdivisions of more than two or three lots are gone. With the value of residential property in Chatham—and in most neighboring towns—escalating, developers and builders are taking any advantage to exploit loopholes in zoning bylaws to slice and dice lots once thought to be only big enough for a single home. What's built pushed the boundaries, literally, of restrictions such as setbacks and lot coverage.

This in-filling has the potential of further degrading the towns' character. Some would say it already has.

Admittedly, it's a free market. If the economy can support an average residential home value of more than $1 million, so be it. But it seems to us these market forces are out of control. Much of this territory was covered by the Chatham 365 Task Force, which showed how escalating real estate prices and cost of living are squeezing out young families. Their recommendations point to ways to begin regaining balance, and we urge the selectmen to accelerate implementation of those proposals, especially those related to housing, such as tax breaks for year-round residents.

The finance committee's community housing working group also put forth several well thought-out and important recommendations, many of which require a wholesale revision in the way we think about housing and development. A significant element is examining form-based codes, which focused on the physical form, placement, size and bulk of buildings rather than land use. It's an alternative to traditional zoning which the Chatham Planning Board is starting to look at. The process can't happen too soon. It may not be panacea, but it's likely to be a step up from Chatham's dysfunctional zoning bylaw, which hasn't been substantially updated in more than 30 years. Things have changed over the past three decades, you may have noticed. Given its trickledown implications, this needs to be a top priority.