CHATHAM — Renewing a tradition that stretches 75 years, the town’s summer residents had the chance to speak out about issues important to them in the annual summer town meeting Tuesday. And for about two hours, they covered topics ranging from town finances to groundwater contamination.
As nonresident taxpayers, seasonal homeowners contribute the majority of the town’s property tax revenue, without the benefit of being able to vote at town meeting or town elections. But at Tuesday’s non-legislative session, they nonetheless had the ear of the select board and town department heads.
Select board Chair Peter Cocolis told the forum that the determination that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, were present in a town drinking water well at levels above state standards prompted the board to put water quality at the top of its priority list. “First of all, our drinking water is safe,” he said. The town is pursuing short- and long-term responses to the contamination, and to the underlying challenge of ensuring adequate capacity in the town’s water system, he said.
Irwin Sitkin, a visitor to the Cape since 1956 and a seasonal resident since 1994, said he’s seen much reporting about PFAS, but “we haven’t heard much about what’s causing it.” He asked if town officials know where the contamination is coming from.
Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the town is planning a study to try and identify the source, but PFAS are “very ubiquitous in our environment” because they are present in many household products. It’s not clear whether the study will pinpoint a source of the contamination, but it will get underway soon, he said.
The town’s summer residents’ advisory committee, which organizes the summer town meeting, has been an active voice in advocating for the control of a different type of groundwater pollution: nutrients from septic systems. Committee member Jill Nickerson MacDonald said the group helped shape the town’s comprehensive wastewater management plan, which will extend the sewer system to all properties in town by 2040. So far, the implementation of the plan has been “an unqualified success,” she said. The committee is confident that the project will be completed, and Chatham’s embayments and ponds “will be passed on to the next generations in much better condition than we found them.”
The committee acknowledges the progress the town is making to create affordable and attainable housing, as well. Member Phil Richardson said a subcommittee has examined the idea of using higher-density cluster development to create housing units on fairly small parcels of land, “because there’s very little land to develop in housing, and it makes the cost go down.” Richardson said he believes the Buckley property at 1533 Main St, which the town is seeking to purchase, could host 25 single-family homes on 2.5 acres, with two-, three- and four-bedroom houses with detached garages, a community building and a neighborhood garden. The idea is just a concept, but shows a way the town could make meaningful progress in its effort to create housing units, Richardson said.
Resident Rick Leavitt said he supports discussing such proposals, saying higher density development is the way to go. “Chatham’s historic Old Village started out that way more than a century ago,” he said. Community Development Director Katie Donovan said there will be robust public discussions about how the Buckley property might be used to create housing units, should it be acquired by the town. Only after that kind of dialogue will the town seek proposals from housing developers, she said.
North Chatham seasonal resident J.D. Seem asked about the proposal to seek special legislation that would raise housing funds by levying a half-percent surtax on the transfer of properties valued over $2 million, payable by the buyer. Seem asked why the town sought to put the burden on a small subset of property owners. Select board member Jeffrey Dykens, the author of the proposal, said the goal is to create a long-term, dedicated funding source for affordable housing.
“This warrant article had a lot of support in town, and we support the concept,” summer residents’ advisory committee Chairman Joel Rottner said. The special legislation still needs approval by lawmakers in Boston, which could be an uphill climb.
Generally speaking, the summer residents’ committee is pleased with the the state of the town’s finances, which remain strong despite the pandemic. The town has maintained its top bond rating, and has the lowest tax rate on Cape Cod – owing to the fact that it also has far and away the highest average assessed value for single-family homes. Still, committee member Jamie Meehan said, the tax bill for the average single-family home in Chatham is around the Cape average, he said.
“Chatham has been doing very well from a financial point of view, compared to other Cape towns,” he said. This year’s financial scorecard from the committee was abbreviated, largely because many of the issues raised in past years “have been dealt with, quite frankly,” he said.
Seasonal resident Helen Tager-Flusberg told the committee that she and others feel the “controversy and serious anguish” related to the debate over the Chatham Municipal Airport. Tager-Flusberg lives on Agnes Lane, “and my house is one of the last houses that the planes fly over, whether they’re taking off or landing.” She challenged town officials to oppose airport plans that she says threaten the environment and residents’ quality of life, rather than supporting “a small cadre, the ‘airport club.’”
Another seasonal resident who spoke at the meeting said he doesn’t understand who has final authority over what happens at the airport.
“We don’t really know who is in charge,” he said.
Cocolis took issue with the characterization of airport supporters as a small club, but acknowledged that some people still have questions about who has ultimate control of the airport. An opinion by town counsel indicated that the airport commission has considerable authority and responsibility, he said, but Cocolis said he would like the topic to be brought up again publicly soon.
"Because if the public doesn't understand, then it doesn't mean anything. Because all we're going to do is we're going to be talking past each other, and I don't want to do that," he said.