We've been trying to puzzle out why a majority of the Chatham Select Board opposes dedicating town-owned property at 127 Old Harbor Rd. to affordable or attainable housing. The .88-acre property was donated to the town in 1971 by Marion Nickerson Ellis to be used “as additional playground and recreation area for the present site of the school located on the abutting property of the town.” It was to be designated the “Augustus and Marion Ellis Playground.” While a plaque on the property acknowledges the gift, only a small portion at the rear was used as a playground by the adjacent Chatham Elementary School. The 1860s-era house has been, over the years, school administration offices and the headquarters of the town's water department. It has been largely vacant for a decade or more, with a garage on the property used for storage by various town departments.
The restriction that the property be a playground or recreational area has expired, according to town counsel. Five years ago, the land was briefly considered for a site for a new senior center, but its small size made it unsuitable. Unoccupied, he old house has fallen into disrepair. There's no use for it on the horizon.
Twice recently the select board has voted 3-2 not to allow the land to be used as affordable or attainable housing. A few weeks ago, board members argued that the property's location is “too choice” to use it for that purpose at this time, and that given the uncertain future of the elementary school, no decision should be made about 127 Old Harbor Rd. at this time. The town owns the property and there's no hurry in determining its future, the majority said.
Those are specious arguments. While whatever portion of the land now used as part of the elementary school playground should certain continue being used that way, simply leaving the building to continue to deteriorate should not be an option. A decade is long enough to hang on to a property like this without using it in any meaningful way. It's not likely going to be needed as offices again – the town has plenty of office space available at the annex, DPW and town offices. Saying it is “too choice” a property to devote to affordable or attainable housing is, unfortunately, a dog whistle for “not in my neighborhood.” The town's housing production plan calls for scattering affordable housing around town, and just because this neighborhood is now in the $1 million-plus range of sales and property values, just like almost every neighborhood in town, doesn't mean a unit or two of affordable or attainable housing would not be appropriate. Remember, there are four town-owned houses on the Marconi property just steps away from Ryder's Cove that are part of an affordable rental program. What's the open market value of that property? If the select board really wants to maximize the value of the Old Harbor Road parcel, or the Marconi houses, they could be sold for short-term gain; the Old Harbor Road parcel is assessed at $632,900, and would no doubt fetch more in today's market. Then the old house could be knocked down and a large, ostentatious summer home built to fit in with the neighborhood.
Thankfully, voters will get a chance to overturn the select board's position on 127 Old Harbor Rd. at the June 12 town meeting. Karolyn McClelland, chair of the Chatham Community Housing Partnership, sponsored a petition article to dedicate the property to affordable or attainable housing. We support the petition; housing is the best option for the property, and we believe it could be developed to provide homes for one or two local families who have been frozen out of the market by the high price of Chatham real estate. As board chair and supporter of McClelland's petition Shareen Davis said, this is an opportunity to be creative with an unused town resource. While one or two new affordable or attainable housing units may not seem like much, it will make a world of difference for the families who call them home.