John Whelan: Home On The Range

“Home, home on the range

Where the deer and the antelope play

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

And the skies are not cloudy all day.”

 

“Home on the Range” is an old and popular cowboy song. The lyrics were written by Dr. Brewster Higley of Smith County, Kansas in about 1872, and have been altered somewhat over the years. A friend of Higley’s, Daniel Kelley, wrote the music and the song became part of western folklore.  Bing Crosby made it popular countrywide when he recorded the song in 1933.  Many artists have followed Bing and the song has become a standard.  It has become part of nearly every campfire sing-a-long.

I’m leading an article with it for two reasons.  First, I am tired of these rainy and grey days.  Like many Chatham residents, I wait all year for the sunny, warm days of June, July and August.  My personal taste is for bright sun and 80 degrees with a sea breeze. I call them “Chamber of Commerce Days.”  I have always believed those days are a big part of why people flock to Chatham. 

Well in 2021, it is obvious the people have flocked to Chatham, but have enjoyed too few “Chamber of Commerce” days.  Any visitor to Chatham for the Memorial Day weekend was shocked by the three days of 47-degree weather.  I assured one friend that by the Fourth of July, the weather would be warm and sunny. Well, we all now know how poor a weather prognosticator I was. Little sun or warmth and 57-degree temperatures for the whole weekend.  I assume the merchants were happy, particularly those selling sweatshirts and sweaters, but the rest of us were looking for relief.  Here we are 10 days later, and still no sun and no relief in sight.  The lyrics of “Home on the Range” takes a backhand swipe at our weather by stating that in the west “skies are not cloudy all day.”  I can usually argue that we have our fair share of sunny days, but my argument may fall a little short this year.

One of my favorite summer joys is taking an outdoor shower. Very few in 2021 so far.

The second reason for the song is that a long-term reader has made the comment that my columns are like “Home on the Range.” His claim is that I am always writing in enthusiastic terms about the virtues of Chatham and its people.  He claims “seldom is heard a discouraging word.” I agree that I am a distinct optimist and usually write with a positive attitude about Chatham.  I think it is a great town, but even I can see clouds on the local horizon.  I’ll try to explain what I am seeing.

Chatham had its annual town meeting on June 12 and 13 at Veteran’s Field.  True to form, Saturday, June 12 was grey and cold and many attendees, myself included, chose to wear warm clothing.  Town Moderator Bill Litchfield did a fine job, as usual, adapting to the outdoor format.  The warrant had a variety of articles, a number of which attempted to address the issue of affordable and attainable housing.  The finance committee, of which I am a member, had identified housing as Chatham’s most pressing issue.  Our town leaders had responded by proposing a number of articles to begin to provide more housing.  I believe everyone knows that demand for housing in Chatham is far greater than supply and that prices of homes have soared.  COVID-19 may have been a factor in this process as individuals who could work online chose to work from Chatham.  

First of all, there are very few homes for sale.  And even fewer, if any, that could qualify as affordable.  Workforce income levels would not enable a young wage earner to purchase a home in town.  Even with both members of a family working full time, the price of Chatham homes is out of reach.  I think most Chatham voters recognize that something has to change or the ongoing departure of young families will continue.  So the warrant articles were designed to try to address this housing issue.  Article 18 dealt with acquisition of the Buckley property at 1533 Main St. in West Chatham.  Town meeting approved the purchase, but there was a difference of opinion between members of the Buckley family which could delay the purchase.  

To learn more, I spoke with Aly Sabatino, principal planner in the community development department.  I asked her how many affordable units had been added in the past five years.  The answer was seven, or an average of 1.4 units a year.  I also asked her how many ADUs had been built since Chatham changed its bylaws to allow them.  In case you don’t remember, an ADU is a secondary housing unit on a single-family residential lot.  It was hoped that a number of ADUs would be built and provide some apartments that folks of modest means could rent.   Aly’s answer was that there have been only three applications approved for ADUs, and so it appears that ADUs will not be the solution.  

I also spoke with Tracy Cannon, the executive director of the Chatham Housing Authority.  Tracy explained that her primary responsibility was overseeing the operation of the Housing Authority units.  We spoke briefly about the defeat of Article 19, which dealt with the town-owned property on Middle Road. In her opinion, that defeat was a tragedy.  The Middle Road property could have allowed a significant number of affordable and attainable units of various sizes.  It was defeated as a number of speakers claimed that Middle Road was an ecological jewel that should not be disturbed.  

The end result of the town meeting was that we have the possibility of acquiring one property subject to delay because of an inter-family dispute.  Of course, I’m hoping the issues can be resolved and that the Buckley property can provide some housing units.  But these matters move slowly and the clock keeps ticking.  Peter Cocolis, chair of the Chatham Select Board, told me he is cautiously optimistic that something could be done in 24 months.

My discouraging word is that Chatham is doing too little and is probably doing it too late. The exodus of young families will continue further threatening the viability of the Chatham Elementary School.  We need affordable and attainable housing now and further delays may mean the battle is lost.  Chatham is well on its way to becoming a “boutique town” with few residents with moderate incomes.  Very discouraging, in my view.

Next month, back to optimism!