Our View: Don't Be Distracted

Editorial.

Some members of the Chatham Select Board and other critics of re-use of the town-owned property at 127 Old Harbor Rd. as housing are shortsighted in their opposition to moving ahead with an assessment of the parcel's potential.

Some say there's no hurry, that another use may eventually emerge for the property, while others say that it's not the best location for affordable housing and using it for that purpose goes against the wishes of Marion Nickerson Ellis, who gifted the land to the town in 1971 for use as a playground.

First, the land has never been entirely used as a playground. A portion has been, and still is, part of the playground at the adjacent Chatham Elementary School. But for years the building was used as the headquarters of the town's water department, and for at least the past decade, the old house has been vacant and a barn on the property has been used by town departments for storage. No serious challenges were raised when the water department occupied the property, which also seems to be counter to Mrs. Ellis' wishes. Now the prospect of housing at the location is raising objections, and we can only speculate why.

Second, town counsel has opined that while legal challenges can't be totally ruled out, the confusing manner in which Mrs. Ellis' donation was worded provides enough leeway for the town to use the land for housing (remember, a portion will remain as a playground, as it has been for years). There have been comments that going against her wishes will give others wishing to donate land to the town pause; however, there are a lot more legal safeguards in place today that can guarantee a donor's wishes are followed. It's a straw man argument.

No other town use of the property has emerged in all these years even as new municipal buildings were built and departments reshuffled. And there is no reason, other than neighborhood opposition or (unfounded) concerns about impacts to property values, that would preclude affordable housing at this location; indeed, one of the guiding concepts in the town's housing production plan is to spread out affordable housing around town. The possibility that the property may only yield two or three units is also no reason not to forge ahead.

The select board has declared the land surplus for municipal use, a designation that must be affirmed by town meeting in May. It would behoove officials to have the study of the land's housing potential authorized by the town's affordable housing trust completed by then, so that voters can make an informed decision. If town meeting wants to leave the house vacant, so be it, but voters shouldn't be distracted by diversions from the serious issue of the dire need for affordable housing.