Advocates Push Select Board On Housing

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness

The town-owned former water department building on Old Harbor Road has been eyed for potential affordable housing. FILE PHOTO


Focus On Middle Road And Private Land

CHATHAM When it comes to housing, it’s all about location, location, location. Or is it?

In its drive to create affordable and attainable housing in town, the select board once again finds itself pulled between the need to act quickly and the desire to find the best possible locale.

The board heard presentations last week on a half dozen town-owned parcels where new housing units might be developed, starting with land on Middle Road where an affordable housing development was proposed years ago but never built.

Principal Planner Aly Sabatino said that wetlands make a large portion of the 19-acre parcel difficult to use, but development is possible on two parts of the land. The first offers about three acres of usable land, and the second – which was previously under consideration for a new senior center – has about 5.2 acres of developable upland. The town could move ahead with housing projects on either part of the property or both, Sabatino said. Any project could include open space for recreation or conservation, possibly with walking trails, and would also provide a wooded buffer to neighboring properties, she said.

Last year, the town’s community housing partnership asked the select board to reserve the entire 19 acres for housing, but the board said it would prefer to have a full inventory of town-owned properties before making that decision. Staff presented that inventory and provided additional information on six key sites, including Middle Road.

Board member Dean Nicastro said he supports using the whole Middle Road parcel for housing, but he favors looking beyond properties currently owned by the town when choosing priorities for a major housing project. Voters at the annual town meeting in May are expected to consider the purchase of private land for housing, though the specific parcels have not yet been disclosed; the board held an executive session to discuss land acquisition for housing before its regular meeting this Tuesday.

“We may want to focus our initial – hopefully bold – efforts on some other parcels in the village centers of the town, while at the same time perhaps using a property like Middle Road for rental housing, workforce housing, that sort of thing, for a younger demographic,” Nicastro said.

Board member Peter Cocolis agreed that the focus should be on village centers, but said Middle Road would be ideal for affordable, attainable and rental housing, “because you need all three.” Cocolis recommended that town officials continue weighing potential sites for housing projects.

“The first criteria is location. The location, the size of the property and the appropriateness to the community around it,” he said.

Having served on the planning board when the first Middle Road housing proposal was floated, select board member Cory Metters said the use of that land is not a new idea. He asked for more detailed information on the two options at Middle Road, including how many units might be developed on each part of the land. “But I would not move on both at the same time,” he said. Affordable and attainable housing should be spread around the town, not just concentrated in one area, Metters said.

Board member Jeffrey Dykens said he likes the Middle Road site, though it is “a little remote.” He said he would also prefer prioritizing sites closer to village centers, but wouldn’t oppose advancing a Middle Road housing project soon.

Select board Chair Shareen Davis said housing projects should be prioritized the way the town successfully prioritized waterfront projects. When choosing a location, the town should “really prioritize what would be the most beneficial to quality of life,” she said.

The next property reviewed by the board was 127 Old Harbor Rd., the former water department office. Davis said she favors using the old house as an affordable rental under the towns’ existing MCI Rental Escrow Program. “Put a family in there and move forward,” she said. “I think that would be a very efficient and low-cost use for the property.”

“The most we’re going to get out of this is one or two residences,” Nicastro countered. “This is a very valuable property. It’s a choice lot.” A better move would be to retain the property for some future use and focus on a development that creates more units, or to sell the house and land and use the proceeds for the affordable housing trust.

Metters agreed, saying some neighbors of the Old Harbor Road property would likely oppose any re-use of the house and land. With a project advancing on Middle Road, “we’re going to have enough on our plate,” he said.

“We’ve done nothing with it for years. Years,” Dykens said. He favored putting the property to some use rather than letting it remain empty.

The select board briefly considered several other town-owned parcels. Land at the Marconi-MCI campus in Chathamport, behind the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, was seen as a costly option for building housing; several board members said they would also like the land to be considered for some future educational use. There is also land behind the Bassett House visitors center at 2377 Main St., South Chatham, but the parcel is small and potentially difficult to access. Board members liked the idea of reusing the current senior center land at 193 Stony Hill Rd. for housing, but said voters first need to weigh in on the new council on aging proposal at the next town meeting.

The select board opted to continue to gather more information before revisiting the topic on Feb. 16. Dykens said he knows the community housing partnership is eager to move quickly on Middle Road.

“We’ll do our thing. Fret not, please,” he said.

Partnership Chair Karolyn McClelland said Middle Road is not too remote a location for a housing development. People would be happy to live there, she said.

“Middle Road is not on another planet. It is in Chatham,” she said. McClelland also questioned the board’s reluctance to move ahead with 127 Old Harbor Rd., which is just outside the downtown area.

“And yet right away, it seems like it’s too valuable a piece of property, it wouldn’t be right for attainable housing or affordable housing, and you don’t want to do it,” she said. “So I don’t understand how you can have the two arguments in the same evening.” People resist having affordable housing near their neighborhoods for no good reason, McClelland said.

“The [Chatham Housing Opportunities Program] neighborhood is a beautiful neighborhood” and an asset to the community, she said.

“Location? Location is the town of Chatham, and we need to look at all our properties,” McClelland said.

Resident Bill Bystrom agreed, saying there is a need to act quickly to create housing for local families. The median selling price for houses in Chatham is now $950,000, he said.

“If we’re going to do affordable and attainable housing, the question that is there is, if not now, when?” he said. “If we wait, we’re going to lose our window” of opportunity as housing becomes more expensive to build, Bystrom said.