Amid the many important measures on the 63-article warrant for Saturday's annual town meeting in Chatham are four that bring to a head controversies that have been engulfing the town for several years. Two deal with Chatham Municipal Airport, a hot-button issue for nearly a decade now, and two address the future of town-owned open space off Middle Road. Groups both pro and con have conducted slick and extensive campaigns on behalf of their position, but as with most politics these days, you need to be skeptical and look closely at the claims being made.
The two airport articles, filed by petition, seek to establish town bylaws that reduce the length of the runway for landings and limit the types of aircraft that can use the facility. As has been pointed out, both fly in the face of federal regulations and are likely to be rejected by the state Attorney General. Proponents say they will make the airport safer for pilots and people on the ground, but they will do no such thing. They won't change the runway protection zones, as backer claim, since the entire runway will remain available for takeoffs. And the types of larger planes they seek to prohibit have used the airport for years with no worse safety record than smaller planes. There is zero evidence that either proposal will make the airport safer, and both should be rejected by voters. What the articles have done is galvanize airport supporters, who have mounted a campaign with lawn signs and websites to counter the claims made by the sponsors. The private group has been more effective than the PR firm that the airport commission hired, which has, frankly, been a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The opponents of the proposal to use four acres of town-owned land along Middle Road for affordable or attainable housing (article 62) have been more effective. In their effort to preserve the “Goose Pond Forest” – a term we'd never heard until a few months ago, so kudos to them for a successful branding exercise – they've appealed to residents' longstanding support for conservation of open space, fears of overdevelopment and appeals to concerns over climate change. In article 63, the town's open space committee seeks to have the entire 19-acre parcel, including the four acres the select board has identified for housing, be subject to a conservation restriction, keeping the land as open space in perpetuity. They argue that this is the last 19 acres of the “Goose Pond Forest.” But that simply isn't accurate. Including this 19 acre parcel, between Middle Road and Goose Pond, there are more than 79 acres of town-owned conservation land, all contiguous. That land is also linked to another 46 acres of town land that surrounds the pond to the north, for a total of more than 125 acres of public open space. In addition, the Chatham Conservation Foundation owns another 15 acres of conservation land that's linked to the town property. None of the town-owned land can be used for any other purpose without a vote of town meeting.
Surely, four acres along Middle Road can be spared to protect another endangered species – local residents with moderate incomes. And this is hardly virgin forest; to the west along Middle Road are other homes, including several Habitat for Humanity houses, and to the east is a large private solar array in a former sand pit. We urge voters to support article 62 – four acres for housing with 15 acres put under a conservation restriction – and reject article 63, which would put a conservation restriction on the entire 19 acres and preclude use of any of this land for housing.