Town Considers Strategy For Middle Road Housing

By: Alan Pollock

Following town meeting votes last month, town officials are pursuing several strategies for creating housing units, including the potential reuse of the town-owned house at 127 Old Harbor Rd. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM — Housing advocates scored a number of key victories in last month’s annual town meeting. But an article reserving 19 acres of town-owned land off Middle Road for housing failed to get the needed votes, and town officials are pondering how they might try to advance the idea again.

“The articles that passed, passed overwhelmingly,” Chatham Housing Partnership Chair Karolyn McClelland told her committee last week. A majority of voters supported the Middle Road proposal, but not the two-thirds majority the article needed to pass, “which is really disappointing,” McClelland said. There are indications that there weren’t many young working families present to vote at the June 12 and 13 town meetings; only two families took advantage of the free child care the town was offering.

“I don’t know how to interpret that, other than that we still can’t seem to get families out,” she said.

“Obviously some more work needs to be done,” partnership member Lynne Pleffner said. Because of the pandemic, this year’s town meeting was held in June rather than in May. Returning to the regular date, and holding the meeting on a Saturday, would be helpful “so that maybe everybody can show up – shopkeepers and fishermen and everyone who lives here,” she said.

At town meeting, a number of voters raised concerns about losing the wooded area off Middle Road, saying it includes important wildlife habitat and would be better retained for conservation. Speaking at last week’s meeting of the select board, member Shareen Davis said she favors opening a dialogue with some of the neighbors around Middle Road, “and see if they may be open to working together for maybe some affordable housing there, but also to work to preserve some of the property that they’re interested in.”

McClelland blamed the Middle Road article’s failure on “NIMBY-ism,” that is those who support housing but “not in my back yard.”

“The opposition, obviously, is [employing] a rhetoric that we’re all familiar with in town,” she said. Better communication may help, she added.

“We always need to put our message out there and be consistent,” McClelland said. “I’ve heard some comments made that we need to push the attainable housing. We need to explain that more to the public.” Traditional affordable housing programs are usually reserved for those who earn 100 percent or less than the area median income (AMI), which on Cape Cod is currently $89,300 for a family of four. Attainable housing refers to units that are available for those who earn more, up to 200 percent of AMI.

“Because it’s a complicated issue, not everybody grasps it” McClelland said. While most of the housing initiatives at town meeting passed, for those that didn’t, “I think our problem is the old-fashioned NIMBY problem,” she said. “We have to be creative in how we address that.”

Partnership member Tracy Cannon suggested that the town reserve funds for a “really deep dive” study into the environmental impacts of the development of the Middle Road parcel, to try and address the concerns raised by opponents.

“Clearly, that’s what they’re hanging their hats on. That’s what they’re saying is the issue,” Cannon said.

Of the 19 acres the town owns there, only about nine acres are buildable; the rest surrounds protected wetlands or has difficult topography.

Meanwhile, the town is continuing its search for other parcels that might be used for housing.

“There is another [request for proposals] for private property for affordable or attainable housing that’s due to go out in the next couple weeks,” Town Manager Jill Goldsmith told the select board last week. Proposals will be invited through Aug. 31. Known as a rolling RFP, the request is likely to be repeated into the future in an effort to meet the ongoing need for housing.

“Hopefully we’ll get some private parcels coming to use through that process,” Principal Planner Aly Sabatino told the partnership.

Town meeting voters approved setting aside $1,375,000 to acquire the 2.5-acre Buckley property at 1533 Main St. for affordable and attainable housing. 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. That process remains underway, Sabatino said. If an agreement can be reached, the town would seek to have community outreach sessions in the fall to explore various options for housing development on the site, she said.

Town meeting also approved a nonbinding petition article to have town property at 127 Old Harbor Rd., the former water department, be utilized for affordable housing. Sabatino said the town has applied for a Real Estate Services Technical Assistance Grant for a feasibility study “to see what kind of costs will be encompassed when we start to pursue that for housing purposes.”