Split Board Favors Housing For 127 Old Harbor Rd.

By: Alan Pollock

127 Old Harbor Rd. in Chatham. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM On a 3-2 vote Tuesday night, the select board backed a plan to set aside the former water department office at 127 Old Harbor Rd. for affordable or attainable housing. Their decision was clouded by complex legal issues surrounding the property, as well as some philosophical divisions among board members.

Town meeting voters, who overwhelmingly endorsed a nonbinding proposal in June to use the property for affordable housing, will now have the chance to reaffirm that vote in a binding article in the next annual town meeting.

With members Dean Nicastro and Cory Metters dissenting, the select board voted to declare the property surplus and to authorize its use for affordable and attainable housing, and to seek voter approval at the May 14 annual town meeting to officially declare the property surplus.

The .88-acre parcel was donated to the town by the estate of Marion Nickerson Ellis, who stipulated that the existing buildings must remain and that a playground be maintained on the land. The gift was accepted by voters at a special town meeting in 1971; since that time, some of the land has been used by the adjacent elementary school as part of its playground and the town used the house as an office for the water department before vacating it more than a decade ago.

Town counsel Patrick Costello opined that the statutes used by Ellis’ estate to guide the future use of the property are legally contradictory, with one section of the law dating from 1887. He outlined for the board his opinion that, should the board declare the land surplus, and if town meeting affirms that position by a two-thirds binding vote, “then in my view the town would be on sound footing going forward” with plans to use the property for housing. Because of other legal issues, Costello said he can’t say for certain that the town would be free from legal challenges in such a move, “but I don’t believe it should preclude the town from going forward” with a housing plan if the town determines that to be the best reuse of the property.

The legal issue aside, board members had different views about the best way ahead for the property.

“I’m all for housing,” Cory Metters said. And while counsel feels the legal restrictions on the use of the property are not necessarily still in force, “philosophically it goes against my grain” not to follow Ellis’ explicit wishes for the land, he said. Metters said he has been accused of having a conflict of interest because he has a distant cousin who is a neighbor to the property, but he said he sees no such conflict.

Metters said the board shouldn’t declare the property surplus if it has another potential use, chiefly some future use related to the elementary school. Further, if the house or its adjacent barn are redeveloped as housing, “there’s no guarantee that a Chatham schoolteacher is going to end up being a resident of it,” he said.

Board member Dean Nicastro said he agrees with Costello’s legal assessment, but nonetheless opposes a move to declare the property surplus, saying using it for housing is “short-sighted, premature and a very poor return on investment.” At best, he said, one or two housing units might be built here.

“That’s not going to make a dent on the multiple needs we have for housing in this town,” he said. And with the nearby school and community center, and the potential need for office space related to a new senior center, the property should be kept available for other future uses. “To me, there are several moving pieces here,” he said.

“I hear red herrings everywhere here tonight,” select board member Jeffrey Dykens said. With regard to the Ellis deed, “times change,” he said. “We’re 50 years after the Ellis gift.” Town meeting overwhelmingly supported the use of the land for housing, but nothing has been done yet, he noted. “I really don’t want the legal issues to get in the way of accomplishing something for affordable housing in this town,” Dykens said.

Board member Shareen Davis agreed. “We are such a contradiction as we look at this property,” she said. While some complain now that housing would go against Ellis’ wishes, no one objected when the town used the house for a water department office for many years, she noted. Davis also rejected the argument that the property is too small to truly help the affordable housing shortage, which is at a critical point now. “Big projects, little projects, one-offs, it doesn’t matter. We should be looking at it,” she said.

Board Chair Peter Cocolis said he previously opposed the 127 Old Harbor Rd. housing plan, but only because he feared debate might bog down the larger, more significant housing proposals on the warrant. With those proposals stalled, “now we’re at a position that’s different than before,” he said. It is not reasonable for a donor to expect his or her wishes to be honored in perpetuity, even in the face of changing community needs, he said. If the property isn’t used for housing, “what is it going to be used for?” Cocolis asked.

Nicastro defended his personal commitment to affordable housing, which he said is backed by his voting record. While the community housing partnership unanimously supports using the property for housing, “just because I don’t accept every recommendation of every committee doesn’t mean I’m not in favor of affordable housing,” he said.

Metters also stressed that he is not opposed to affordable housing, and said he felt the discussion Tuesday was “getting a little personal.” Metters says he’s protective of the interests of the elementary school and is willing to “take my hit for it” from critics. “I just feel strongly that this is the wrong decision to make,” he said.

Among the members of the public to speak was David Oppenheim, who said the property at 127 Old Harbor Rd. represents “low-hanging fruit” in the effort to create housing units, since the land is already owned by the town. “It’s time to do it, and we need to do it now,” he said.

Resident Bill Bystrom acknowledged that some feel an ethical obligation to honor the original wishes of Mrs. Ellis. But there is also an ethical need “as human beings to take care of other human beings in our community,” he said. There are always excuses to avoid creating housing units, but the town needs homes for working families.

“It’s time to stop saying we can’t do it, and just go out and do it,” Bystrom said.