Housing Vs. Open Space: Conflict Developing Over Goose Pond Land

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Conservation , Housing and homelessness

Chatham seal.

CHATHAM – A conflict is brewing over the future use of town-owned property off Middle Road pitting the critical need for affordable housing against retaining limited open space and forest land.

In June, town meeting voters declined to declare 19 acres on Middle Road surplus so that it a portion of it could be used for affordable or attainable housing. The select board had included the land in a multi-pronged strategy to counter the rapid increase in housing costs and help young families and working people afford to remain in town. A number of residents organized to oppose the proposal, convincing voters that the land, part of a larger town-owned tract that stretches north to Goose Pond, should remain as open space.

Affordable housing trust committee members, which includes the select board, aren't ready to give up on using the land for housing. That puts them in conflict not only with the town meeting vote and the Goose Pond Forest Land group but with the town's open space committee, which voted Dec. 9 to ask the select board to consider a conservation restriction on the land to preserve it as open space forever.

“I think there's a sentiment that we should try to preserve, as much as we can, properties that are undisturbed like this one,” said open space committee member George Cooper.

The land is part of approximately 70 acres of contiguous forest land that runs from Middle Road to the shore of Goose Pond and Old Queen Anne Road. The town's housing production plan identifies the 19-acre section bordering Middle Road as a possible location for affordable housing; the select board had proposed using about nine acres of the land closest to the road for that purpose. Much of the rest is not suitable for development due to topography and wetlands. Several affordable homes built by Habitat for Humanity are located nearby.

A section of the land was also identified as a potential site for a new senior center, but voters rejected the proposal in 2019.

Declaring it surplus for municipal purposes was the first step toward determining if the land was suitable for housing. Meeting Dec. 20 as the town's affordable housing trust committee, members of the select board said they weren't ready to give up on that possibility.

“I do think it has merit for housing,” said board member Cory Metters. Given the amount of conservation land in the area, there could be room for compromise, board members said, proposing that a meeting be set up with the open space committee, the Chatham Housing Partnership Committee – which also supports continuing to pursue the land for housing – and the trust committee.

“We need to take a leadership role on that, to show that we are thinking about both sides of this issue,” said trust committee and select board member Shareen Davis.

The land is one of the few unfragmented stretches of forest land in town, home to wildlife and habitats such as vernal pools, said Jason Alten, who helped organize opposition to June's town meeting proposal. With the recent water quality problems the town has experienced, its more important than ever to preserve the integrity of open space, he said.

“The town needs it,” he said. A conservation restriction would require a town meeting vote, and residents should have the opportunity to decide whether the land should be protected, he said.

Members of the open space committee recently walked the parcel with conservation advocate Kristin Andres.

“The property is very pretty,” said committee member DeeDee Holt. It is relatively untouched, with few invasive species, she said. If the land were for sale, it would meet the committee's criteria for acquisition, she added. Other town forest land has been sacrificed for other municipal uses, she noted, such as land off Morton Road where a water treatment plant was built. Open space off Training Field Road will also be lost when a new plant is built to treat contaminated water in two wells there.

“Since Chatham is losing forest, it makes sense to try to preserve any additional land we can,” said Holt.

Over the years the town missed out on numerous opportunities to acquire previously developed land for housing, such as the Bailey's Path and Hunter's Rise land and the former Frog Pond Laundry and Bradford Motel, Open space committee chair Jack Farrell said. The housing crisis has since grown more acute and “the community has to have the courage and really the will to do this. In my opinion it really hasn't, and now it is a much more popular subject now, because it's really hurting.”

Use of the Middle Road land has become a politically sensitive subject, Farrell said, and the conservation restriction proposal puts the select board “in the unenviable position of having to support or not support the idea of putting [the land] aside in part or in total for conservation in perpetuity.”

Affordable housing trust committee members asked Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan to set up a meeting with housing and open space advocates. It makes sense to try to hammer out a compromise rather than both sides “trying to sink the other proposal,” said trust committee member Bruce Beane.

“I don't want to see this going through the next 12 town meetings,” he said.