CHATHAM – There's a single contested race on the May 19 annual election ballot, with incumbent Jeffrey Dykens and residents Lynne Pleffner and J. Michael Schell seeking two three-year terms on the select board. Jessica Rogers is running unopposed for a three-year term on the Monomoy Regional School Committee, and there are no candidates for a seat on the housing authority.
A non-binding public advisory question on the ballot asks voters to direct town officials to communicate with Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Health and the legislature to “employ all means necessary” to ensure that the owner of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, Holtec commits to withdrawing plans to dump radioactive waters in Cape Cod Bay.
Polls at the community center will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Absentee voting is available this week at the community center due to the temporary closure of the town offices.
Jeffrey Dykens is running for his fourth term on the select board.
“It gets in your blood a little bit,” he said. “You get committed. It defines you, but also feels like you're giving back. I enjoy it. If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't do it.”
The town needs to partner with the Federal Aviation Administration to address residents' concerns about Chatham Airport as well as the future of the protection zones (RPZ) at both ends of the runway, he said. The RPZs have “never been an issue till now,” he noted, adding that he lives just outside the RPZ and doesn't have a problem with airplanes taking off and landing.
To go against federal regulations, as the two petition town meeting articles regarding the airport appear to do, could impose a tremendous burden on the town as it would require the town to pay the entire cost of capital improvements at the facility and possible reimburse “tens of millions of dollars” in federal aid received by the facility over the years. He opposes the two articles.
“We have to abide by FAA regulations and guidance and structure. There's not a whole lot we can do outside FAA regulations,” he said. He's convinced that airport management and pilots want to have a safe airport and are working toward that with the proposals for new guidance systems. “The airport has been there for 90 years and it's going to be there for another 90 years, I've said that before and I'll say it again. We need to understand how to co-exist with the airport.”
He is adamant about the town continuing to push the Coast Guard to reverse its downgrading of Station Chatham's surf capabilities. “We're communicating, but I have not heard of late what their plans are,” he said. “Their priorities have changed; it's not search and rescue in Chatham, Mass., it's homeland security for the ferry. If they were really focused on search and rescue in Chatham they would have the right boat and the right, trained personnel in place to get the job done.”
The town is at least partially responsible for the housing crisis due the zoning bylaw, he said. “We've zoned ourselves out of developing opportunities. We've done that and now we're living with it.” But we need “all hands on deck and every effort available to find developable land whether it's privately owned or town owned and be creative as we can.” Dykens gave credit to Select Board members Shareen Davis and Peter Cocolis, as well as the rest of the current board, for trying to do more than any board in the past.
“We have to show results,” he said. “We are so far behind” other towns in addressing affordable housing. If the town doesn't step up in various ways – through zoning, land acquisitions and other efforts – “we're going to be a character of ourselves. We'll have lost the sense and values of when Julie [Dykens, his wife] and I grew up. That kind of Chatham is kind of gone. It's like suburbia.” Have to especially jump on redevelopment opportunities, which are few.
“Everybody's looking for housing,” he said, rattling off a list of local employers. “We need housing for our employees, workforce housing.” Town employees travel from all over the Cape to work here, “which is an issue.”
To be able to act quickly, the town, through its affordable housing trust fund, needs money, he said, which is why he supports the proposed fee on real estate transfers of $2 million or more, which voters will be asked to authorize the board to resubmit to the state legislature at Saturday's town meeting. Community preservation funds should also be used aggressively, he said.
“We need funding mechanisms so we can jump on this stuff, otherwise the free market takes over,” he said. “We don't have the same flexibility to be aggressive as the private market has.”
He supports using four acres of town land off Middle Road for housing. It's one small piece of 70 acres of town-owned land, he said. “We're not going to destroy that forest, nowhere near destroy that forest,” he said. The town and Chatham Conservation Foundation have set aside a “remarkable” amount of land in comparison to what remains to be built up, he added.
Dykens, who served for many years on the Chatham and regional school committees, supports changing the language of the Monomoy Regional School Agreement so that Chatham and Harwich pay the full cost of operating each town's elementary school. The additional $700,000 cost to the town is worth it; the regional system has been “a home run” for Chatham, saving the town millions of dollars. The change could also help attract more students. “We need more kids,” he said, a problem that is inextricably tied to the housing issue.
In a turnaround, Dykens also supports a proposal for a residential tax exemption – with a change that will require legislative approval – which he's opposed in the past. The change, proposed by petitioner Seth Taylor, would allow non-resident property owners to claim the exemption if they rent their homes to year-round residents. Dykens previously opposed the exemption, but he liked the “twist” suggested by Taylor. Selectmen have historically opposed the exemption, but the town's economic development committee and others urged the board to do everything it can to help ease the financial burden on year-round residents.
“I think I finally listened enough,” he said. He would even support it now without Taylor's change. “I feel as though it's time; the pendulum has swung so far the other way.” Chatham's property taxes are already among the lowest in the state and a big reason second homeowners buy here, he added.
Formerly a commercial fisherman, Dykens is currently chief financial officer at Duffy Health Center in Hyannis. He plans to retire within the next few years, and looks forward to having more time to spend as a select board member. “It's not easy when you're working full time,” he commented.
“It's enormously frustrating, but tremendously rewarding,” he said
Originally from New Jersey, Lynne Pleffner was a “summer kid” for “a very long time. Her parents built a home in West Chatham which she ended up moving her family into in 2000, after which she immediately became involved in the town, joining the planning board and serving for seven years, two as chair. Over the years she has also served on the community preservation committee, the town's representative to the Cape Cod Commission, Friends of Chatham Affordable Housing and is currently a member of the community housing partnership.
Pleffner said she decided to run for the select board when she heard that Peter Cocolis was stepping down. During the pandemic, she'd decided that if there was an opening on the board, she'd run to give back to the community.
“I thought OK, maybe this is the time,” she said.
Many of her priorities if elected would be “kitchen table items,” she said, such as ensuring that town staff return residents' calls and making the town website more user friendly. But overall, she sees climate change as the biggest challenge to the town in the years ahead.
“To me it should be the top of the list of things we look through” when developing policies and determining projects and expenditures, she said. A table-top exercise looking at the potential problem areas and costs that climate change might bring, as suggested during a recent presentation to the select board, is something she supports.
“So if something happens, we know what to do,” she said, adding that it could be done using volunteers rather than paying a consultant.
With limited resources locally, the town should look at housing solutions regionally, with the Cape Cod Commission taking the lead, Pleffner said. “The demand is there, we just don't have the supply,” she said. She understands both sides of the dispute over using a portion of town-owned land along Middle Road for housing, suggesting that if housing is approved there, it could be a “conservation community” with environmentally friendly building that could be a model for the Cape.
Pleffner said she's spoken to people on both sides of the airport issues and said its time to ratchet down the rhetoric and get opponents, proponents, town, federal and state officials in a room to thrash out the issues.
“I'm sure there are a lot more airports like Chatham than not,” she said, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration has “been down this road before.” She also supports a town-wide survey of residents to gauge sentiment about the airport, similar to a survey done for a senior center.
She supports changing the Monomoy Regional School Agreement so the town pays the cost of Chatham Elementary School and would like to see an assessment of space at the school to determine if an infant/toddler program could be accommodated to help out families who live and work in town. She's also in favor of the town acquiring the Chatham Health and Swim Club for use by all residents, and while she wants to see the outcome of feasibility studies on the community center and current senior center site, she thinks the former could host programs for younger seniors while a new building on Stony Hill Road could house council on aging services.
Pleffner, who is retired but previously worked in advertising, marketing and purchasing, is a member of the Harwich Ecumenical Council for the Homeless board and volunteer with the Food4Kids summer program, which she said “brings home the needs” of the wider community.
In meetings with residents and knocking on doors, Pleffner said she's found that a lot of people “just want to be heard and respected.” If elected, she said will hold regular sessions to meet with residents and hear their concerns.
J. Michael Schell
His career prepared him for situations often faced by the select board, such as facing difficult challenges and bringing different constituencies together to work out solutions, said J. Michael Schell.
“That's pretty much what I did as a [Mergers and Acquisitions] lawyer,” he said. “There were always competing interests at work at the board table. You had to develop credibility from a standing start with people.”
Although he's never run for elected office before, Schell said he's had experience in working with committees and boards, having served for 17 years on the board of a secondary school near Chicago and 10 years as chairman and president of the co-op in the New York City building where he lived until moving to Chatham in 2016. At that time, wanting to contribute to the community, he was named to the town's charter review committee.
“The select board is obviously a much bigger deal,” he said.
Although he's only been a full-time resident for six years, Schell vacationed in town since 1979 and bought a home here in 1995. After retiring from Alcoa in 2011, he spent more than half his time at his Chatham home, getting to know the town, its people and issues in the community.
He sees the environmental challenges posed by climate change as a “huge, huge issue.”
“They're urgent, they're immediate [and] enormously concerning and potentially economically devastating,” he said. Many of the issues and approaches the town needs to consider were mapped out in the recent report the energy and climate action committee delivered to the select board, which needs to “raise the level of consciousness in terms of that being an issue we should be thinking about and acting on,” Schell said. Promoting the protection of salt marshes, planting trees, electric vehicles and water conservation are things the board can do to give the impact of climate change “a more prominent and a more frequent staging,” he said. “We need to really elevate this to something that is getting consistent and pretty urgent attention.”
Schell said he's sympathetic to both sides in the issue of housing vs. conservation regarding the Middle Road property, and intends to support the compromise of setting aside four acres for housing.
“We just really have to bite the bullet and say we're committed to affordable housing, and this is an opportunity,” he said. “It's not the whole loaf, actually it's just a small part of the loaf, but it's a step in the right direction that we have to pursue.”
He supports revenue streams for affordable housing and moving on a number of different fronts.
“It's too big a problem to just do serially,” he said. “We not only have to walk and chew gum, we have to do about three or four other things at the same time.” The economic and social fabric of the town depends on finding a way to tackle the housing crisis. Schell said he knows of businesses whose employees commute from Fall River.
“That's not sustainable,” he said. The town needs to figure out how to remain a sustainable community with a diversity of ages and economic levels. “People who work here ought to be able to live here in a sustainable way,” he said.
Schell sees replacing the existing senior center at the current site as the “straightest line” to solving the issue, but said just as important is making sure seniors have the services they need. From conversations with council on aging officials, he said he has a sense that there are “acute needs in the senior community that we need to pay attention to.”
Issues surrounding Chatham Airport need to be solved politically, not by replacing the airport commission, which the charter review committee considered and he opposed. He opposes the two town meeting petition articles aimed at limiting use of the airport, although he is sympathetic to concerns about noise and an increase in flights. The two measures, however, will just put the town in an adversarial position with regulatory agencies and draw the situation out indefinitely.
“I'm looking for resolutions today, tomorrow, not five years from now,” he said, adding that the airport contributes to the community and is not going anywhere. “It's a great institution and I appreciate the role it plays in the lives of other people who use it as pilots and so forth,” he said.
Schell has been active in Democratic politics and currently serves as the chair of the Chatham Democratic town committee.
He'd like to see the town streamline decision making and address projects and issues in a straightforward manner, which is the way he worked during his career.
“If you have an objective, just get it done,” he said.