Chatham Selectmen Oust Zoning Board Chair

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Board of Selectmen News , Development

Robert Hessler. COURTESY PHOTO

Hessler Claims Retaliation Over Criticism, Senior Center Support

CHATHAM – The former chairman of the zoning board of appeals is accusing the board of selectmen of not reappointing him in retaliation for his leadership of the effort to build a new senior center on Stepping Stones Road and his criticism of the selectmen's leadership.

Robert Hessler, who served on the zoning board for a decade, was not reappointed last week. Selectmen instead voted to make alternate member James “Buck” Upson a regular member and named a new alternate to replace him.

Hessler said he believes his criticism of the board over its leadership in a letter to the editor and his opposition to their choice for a new senior center site, at 1610 Main St., was behind his ouster. He also said he thought selectmen were trying to control the ZBA, which operates under state guidelines that are out of the selectmen's purview.

“I believe that the BOS wants to control the ZBA, teach it a lesson, rein it in, a process that has been in the works for some time,” he wrote in an email. “What better way to change the ZBA's independence than to get rid of its strongest advocate for independence?”

Selectmen Chair Shareen Davis said Hessler's criticism of the board and his efforts regarding the senior center were not at issue. She said she was more concerned that his “strong letter” about the selectmen in the April 2 edition of The Chronicle would impact recruitment of volunteers to serve on town committees. Member Jeffrey Dykens agreed, thanking Hessler for his service but saying he hoped the incident would not “pour cold water” on volunteers.

In the letter, Hessler — who ran unsuccessfully for school committee in last month's annual town election — criticized “failures” of the board of selectmen regarding the airport, Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, West Chatham Roadway Project and the fish pier observation deck.

For some time selectmen have moved to replace longer-serving volunteers with new blood, and that was the case here, Davis said. “I think it gives the ZBA a fresher approach,” she said. Last week the board also did not reappoint a member of the airport commission, she pointed out, adding, “We've got to think forward.”

Over his tenure, Hessler said, the zoning board heard some 1,000 petitions only a few of which have resulted in lawsuits, almost all of which the town won. The board resolved major differences with Chatham Bars Inn, worked with the planning board and department of community development to implement accessory dwelling permits and approved at least three comprehensive permits.

“I think that our board is recognized as being the crème de la crème of volunteer boards,” Hessler said when interviewed by the board of selectmen last month.

In making their appointments last week, selectmen ignored “standard operating procedure,” Hessler said, by failing to ask the ZBA for a recommendation on elevating a member from alternate to voting member. Both Dennis Sullivan and Dave Thomson, who were reappointed as alternates, have more seniority than Upson, who was made a voting member. The board named Maegan Story as a new alternate.

“They are both being appointed by a malevolent board of selectmen in retribution for my criticism of them,” Hessler wrote in a letter to the editor published in this week's edition.

Hessler hit back at charges that the ZBA has been too friendly to developers in a question posed by Selectman Peter Cocolis during his interview by the board.

“We're very mindful about keeping the character of Chatham,” Hessler said. “That's why I joined the board 10 years ago. Things squeeze through, but by and large we're mindful of what the town wants to try to accommodate, within the law.”

In recent years Hessler and David Nixon had alternated terms as chairman and vice chairman, jobs that require more work than being a regular member and ones which no other members were willing to take on, said Hessler, was the most recent chairman. Nixon said he anticipates assuming that role when the board meets Thursday. Hessler's departure from the ZBA is “a loss,” he said.

“He was really a very, very dedicated guy,” said Nixon. Given the legal issues the ZBA deals with, experience matters, he added. Over the past several years a number of veterans ZBA members have either retired or passed away, leaving the board with a dearth of institutional memory. The town owes Hessler thanks for his dedication.

“He cared very much for the town employees we worked with and for other members of the board,” Nixon said. “He was a good leader. People like him make the town run.”

Each time he's been reappointed in the past, it's been by unanimous vote, Hessler said. This time, he felt it was a foregone conclusion that he would not get another term. At least one selectman told him so before the fact, he said, and entreaties on his behalf by numerous officials were received with “disdain,” he said. At the interview with selectmen, Selectman Cory Metters asked if a second home Hessler recently bought meant that he'd be absent from meetings more often. That's never been an issue with past ZBA members, Hessler said in his email, and with meetings held virtually, it's irrelevant.

Hessler, who is deeply involved in the extensive restoration project at the First Congregational Church, said he would not rule out serving on another volunteer committee, but he's not holding his breath.

“My guess is I'm not going to hear from the selectmen anytime soon,” he said.