Chatham Town Meeting Addresses Housing Crisis Head-on

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Town Meeting

Fewer voters showed up for Sunday's second session of the annual town meeting than Saturday's opening session. SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO 

Plastic Bottle Ban, Boathouse Funding Approved

CHATHAM – Housing dominated both the Saturday and Sunday sessions of the town's annual town meeting, with many warning that without taking significant steps to make housing more affordable, the town will lose the opportunity to become an inclusive and diverse community and risk becoming an enclave for the wealthy.

“Affordable and attainable housing is a keystone to things like keeping our elementary school open,” said resident Herb Bassett.

“Hard-working people, young families, should have a fair shot to live here,” something that's become impossible with the escalating cost of real estate and the lack of rentals, said Jess Rogers.

More than half a dozen housing-related articles were approved by voters, including the purchase of 2.5 acres of land on Main Street in West Chatham, a contribution of $1 million in community preservation funds to the town's affordable housing trust, and authorization for the select board to file special legislation for a tax on home sales of $2 million or more.

But support for the proposals was not unanimous, and several failed to win passage. A proposal to dedicate 19 acres of town-owned land off Middle Road to housing failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass, and a petition to urge the select board to provide year-round residents with a break on property taxes, which the proponent said would put dollars in the pockets of working families, went down to defeat.

In prepared remarks read by Finance Committee member Florence Seldin, Chairman Stephen Daniel wrote that the rising cost of residential real estate has become “exorbitant and extraordinarily impactful” to the community. In April 2020, the average price of a single-family home in Chatham was $557,500, according to the Cape and Islands Association of Realtors. This April that had risen to $1.7 million, Daniel wrote. The housing-related articles before town meeting will “help ensure a future for Chatham that is economically, socially and demographically diverse,” he wrote. To those who question the cost, he added, “we encourage you to consider, rather, the cost to our community of not spending this money and of not making this effort.”

Some of the opposition stemmed from the inclusion of so-called “attainable” housing in several of the articles. Currently, the town's affordable housing trust can only contribute to affordable housing as defined by the state, which requires that qualified buyers earn no more than 100 percent of the area median income (AMI) which for Barnstable County is currently $89,300 for a family of four. In several measures, town officials were seeking the flexibility to fund housing for those who earn too much to qualify for affordable housing by including families who make up to 200 percent of AMI, which they refer to as attainable housing.

“That notion of subsidizing $200,000 incomes sticks in my craw,” said Seth Taylor.

Setting a limit of 200 percent of AIM – $178,600 – provides a better chance of helping out working families including professionals such as firefighters and teachers, said Select Board member Dean Nicastro.

“I know the figures are daunting,” said Karolyn McClelland, chairman of the Chatham Community Housing Partnership. But with the current real estate prices, “there's no opportunity for people who are above 'Capital A' [affordable housing] to get into the housing market.”

Voters approved setting aside $1,375,000 to acquire the 2.5-acre Buckley property at 1533 Main St., with half coming from the affordable housing fund and half from free cash, which means up to half of whatever housing is developed there could be attainable. While the property is currently in probate court, approval of the funding puts the town in the position of being able to negotiate a purchase when the family reaches agreement over its disposition.

But Elaine Gibbs said a vote on the property should wait until the probate process is completed, and Sean Summers questioned whether Chatham residents would get preference for housing built on the land. Town Counsel Patrick Costello said the state allows 70 percent preference for people who live, work or have children in schools in Chatham, and Housing Authority director Tracy Cannon said most applicants for housing come from within those groups. She said it is a “myth” that “people are flooding here from other places” to take advantage of affordable housing.

David Oppenheim urged voters to back the Buckley purchase. “This puts us in a position to be prepared” to buy the property when it is available, he said. “We've missed so many opportunities because we weren't prepared.”

Pleas for more housing didn't overcome concern about spoiling the wooded area off Middle Road, however. Officials identified 19 acres there for housing, but because of topography and wetlands, only about nine acres are buildable. The town rejected a similar proposal 15 years ago, said Seldin, “and we have been bleeding young people” due to a lack of housing.

Several people raised concerns about development close to Goose Pond. Many species of wildlife call the area home, including the endangered eastern box turtle, said Kristin Andres. “We will be giving away our natural heritage by voting yes on this article,” she said.

“This is a town treasure,” said Ted Lucas. “It should be preserved for everyone and future generations.”

“I think we are smart enough to do a responsible job” developing the property, said Michael Westgate. “The question is, if not now, then when, and if not here, then where?”

A majority voted in favor of the article, but the 259-225 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required to repurpose municipal property.

Voters approved an article directing the select board to file special legislation to create a new affordable housing trust that will incorporate both affordable and attainable housing. Special legislation to allow Community Preservation Act funds to be used for attainable housing – currently the CPA can only pay for affordable housing – was also endorsed by voters.

Special legislation to allow the town to levy a one-half of one percent surcharge on home sales greater than $2 million, with the revenue supporting both affordable and attainable housing, also won approval. The tax would be paid by the buyer, according to the draft legislation. Finance Committee member Jo-Ann Sprague opposed the proposal, saying it was discriminatory. Solving the housing crisis is a shared responsibility and should not be put on the shoulders of one segment of the community, she said. Doug Hamilton agreed and amended the motion to include all property sales, but the amendment was defeated.

Taylor said investors and second home owners are driving up the cost of real estate, and “I see no reason they can't pony up a bigger portion of the money we need for affordable housing.”

“I don't lose a lot of tears over someone selling a $2 million home,” said Mary Sprout.

“This is an opportunity to keep things moving, to be part of the solution,” said McClelland, “to invite investors to be part of the solution.”

McClelland's petition article to have town property at 127 Old Harbor Rd., the former water department, be utilized for affordable housing was approved. However, because the select board must first declare the property surplus, the vote was not binding.

Voters also approved $75,000 for the town's childcare voucher program. Taylor's petition to have the select board adopt a property tax exemption for year-round residents, which is allowed under Massachusetts law, failed 46 in favor to 76 against. It was the last article to be voted on at Sunday's concluding session of the meeting.

Earlier in the meeting, voters approved the $33,045,296 town operating budget, the town's $8,524,697 contribution to the Monomoy Regional School District budget, $451,856 for Cape Cod Tech, and a $2,881,200 capital budget.


Boathouse Preservation Approved

Despite the objection of a shellfisherman who called it an “old, musty, out-of-date shed,” voters approved $243,250 in community preservation funds to preserve the historic Stage Harbor Coast Guard boathouse. The town plans to repurpose the structure, which once sheltered the historic CG36500 motor lifeboat, as a shellfish upwelling facility at 90 Bridge St.

The boathouse stood on the shores of Stage Island from 1936 until 2009, when it was taken to Quincy to save it from demolition. Resident David Doherty purchased the structure earlier this year when it was in danger of being demolished in Hull, where it had been taken the previous year. It's currently in storage at the Quincy shipyard owned by Jay Cashman, a Chatham property owner.

Jack Farrell gave Doherty and Cashman a shoutout for their work to save the structure, and acknowledged CG36500 coxswains Don St. Pierre and Richard Ryder for their work over the years to preserve the Gold Medal Lifeboat.

Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina said the commission has determined the boathouse is historically significant and will probably nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places once it is returned to town.

Plastic Water Bottle Ban Endorsed

Chatham joined nine other Cape towns in approving a ban on the commercial sale of single-use plastic water bottles under one gallon.

“Although they may be convenient to grab and go, plastic water bottles have a high cost,” said Suzanna Nickerson, who filed the petition article. While town water is tested regularly, “when you drink bottled water, you don't know where it comes from or if it's tested,” she said. “You can get very polluted water.”

David Parker of St. Christopher's Earth honoring faith committee supported the ban as a way to improve the environment. Plastic makes up the majority of litter, and nine metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean, he said. “The question is, how much do we value the environment of Chatham?” he said. “In my opinion, the natural environment is one of the key things that makes Chatham special.”

Voters also approved $1,111,800 for repairs and improvements to the Eldredge Public Library; $7 million for wastewater and $4.5 million for stormwater improvements, both aimed at protecting the town's drinking and surface water resources; $500,000 to upgrade water mains; $300,000 for dredging; and almost two dozen community preservation articles, many held over from last year, including repairs to the town clock, restoration of the roof at the Atwood House Museum, analysis of artifacts found at the Nickerson archaeological dig site, a study of restoration of the Frost Fish Creek salt marsh, funds for a Revolutionary War memorial, upgrades to Sears Park, a study of Jackknife Beach, bike trail crossing lights and milestone markers, and a study of extending the bike trail along George Ryder Road.

Changing the name of the board of selectmen to the select board in the town bylaws was approved, as was a bylaw change allowing the board flexibility in setting the date of the annual town meeting. Earlier in the meeting Litchfield polled voters on how they felt about holding the session on a Saturday, and a majority were supportive.