Housing, Land Preservation Both Fail At Town Meeting

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Town Meeting , Conservation , Housing and homelessness

One of many hand counts taken during Saturday's marathon six-hour annual town meeting. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Other Measures To Help Combat Rising Cost Of Living Approved

CHATHAM – Neither supporters of preserving town-owned land off Middle Road as open space nor those who wanted to use a portion of the property for affordable housing got what they wanted at Saturday's annual town meeting.

Despite an emphasis during the meeting on helping local families meet the high cost of living in town, a proposal to use four of the 19 acres for housing, while supported by the majority of the 701 voters at the session, failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to pass. An alternative article to place a perpetual conservation restriction on the entire parcel failed on a voice vote.

Voters at Veterans Field took six hours to complete the 63-article warrant, approving more than $58 million in spending, including a $35 million operating budget, a $9.5 million Monomoy Regional School District budget and increasing the town's occupancy tax from 4 to 6 percent. Two petition articles that tried to limit use of Chatham Airport went down to defeat (see separate story).

A major theme of the day was the need to support local families to help maintain the community's diversity and boost enrollment at Chatham Elementary School. A $425,000 appropriation for a program to help families pay for preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds passed handily, as did an increase in the town's childcare voucher program from $75,000 to $100,000. Voters also agreed to provide $100,000 in community preservation funds to the project to convert the former Cape Cod Five operations center in Orleans into 62 housing units, 52 of which will be affordable.

But a proposal to enact a property tax exemption for residents failed for the second year in a row, and article 62, which proposed using four acres of the Middle Road for affordable or attainable housing, failed 331-298, short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Use of the Middle Road land for housing had received a majority vote at last year's annual town meeting but also failed to reach the two-thirds threshold. The land is currently under the jurisdiction of the conservation commission and a two-thirds vote is necessary to change that.

Housing supporters characterized their proposal as a compromise that would keep 15 of the 19 acres in its natural state. The town has only built seven units of affordable housing in the past decade, significantly fewer than Orleans, Harwich and other Cape towns, said Karolyn McClelland, chair of the town's community housing partnership.

“This is something we can do,” she said. “We just need land to do it.”

The Middle Road land is a “little drop in the bucket, and we're drowning,” said Hangar B owner Tracy Shields. The housing crisis, brought on by the escalation of real estate prices, is an economic issue because it makes it difficult for businesses to find workers to stay open year-round, she said.

“Do you want everything to be closed?” she asked. “Because that's the trajectory we're on.”

Real estate prices have changed so drastically in recent years that the town cannot maintain families and many seniors unless it expands its housing stock, said Housing Authority Executive Director Tracy Cannon. The Middle Road land can be developed in an environmentally sensitive way that will not ruin the remaining open space.

“Somewhere there needs to be a middle road, literally and figuratively,” she said.

The select board is working several different angles to find parcels to build affordable housing, said member Shareen Davis. Last week's announcement of the purchase of 5.2 acres along Route 137 from the Diocese of Fall River is just one of the efforts in the works, she said.

Losing even a small section of the Middle Road parcel will impact the larger pitch pine and oak forest, said Robert Zaremba. “These kinds of communities are better when they're large,” he said, calling on the town to put affordable housing in areas where it is more appropriate, such as village centers.

“Using the Goose Pond land for affordable housing is just another example of death by a thousand cuts,” said Sarah Griscom.

It is a false dichotomy to believe the choice is either housing or conservation, said Monomoy Regional School Committee member Danielle Tolley. “I cannot stress how much sense it makes to compromise,” she said.

There are more than 100 acres of conservation property linked to the Middle Road land, noted David Oppenheim, and using four acres for housing will have little impact.

“You can call it preservation also,” he said, “preservation of people.” Without more housing “we're going to end up as a museum.”

Proponents for the conservation easement made their case again in the following article seeking the conservation restriction on the entire tract. Including four acres is necessary to retain the “vitality” of the forest, said Kristin Andres.

“These four acres are just in the wrong place for housing,” she said.

Jack Farrell, chair of the town's open space committee, which proposed the conservation restriction, said the town missed out on many opportunities to secure land for affordable housing, and voters have rejected using the Middle Road land for both a senior center and housing. He called for a renewed effort to think outside the box to find land for affordable housing. Maegan Storey said she'd like to know where those properties are.

“Tell me – I'm listening,” she said.

With both articles defeated, the 19 acres will remain under the jurisdiction of the conservation commission.

Voters also failed to repurpose town-owned land at 127 Old Harbor Rd. for affordable or attainable housing. Voters last year supported doing so in a nonbinding question, but article 61 would have allowed the select board to oversee development of 41,817 square feet of the property for housing purposes. The old house on the property was formerly used by the water department but has been vacant for more than a decade, said Select Board member Jeffrey Dykens. This was an opportunity to repurpose the property to address the housing crisis, he said.

But opponents of the move said Marion Nickerson Ellis, who donated the property to the town in 1971, wanted it to be used for the children of the town, and converting it to housing would go against her wishes; a portion of the original land is currently used as part of the adjacent elementary school playground.

Finance committee member Norma Avellar, who knew Ellis, said the donor wanted to help the children of Chatham. “What better way to serve a child than to give them a home?” she said.

Again, a majority of voters agreed, but the 81-51 vote did not meet the two-thirds majority required to repurpose the property, so the measure failed.

A change to the Monomoy Regional School District agreement requiring that Chatham and Harwich pay the cost of running their own elementary schools was approved; Harwich's town meeting OK'd the same change two weeks ago. The new funding formula increases Chatham's portion of the district budget by $739,747 and decreases the Harwich bill by the same amount. Dropping enrollment had created a discrepancy between the cost of funding the Chatham and Harwich elementary schools, and proponents said the change will help ensure that Chatham will continue to have its own elementary school.

Eric Whiteley argued that Harwich benefited from the Monomoy merger by not having to build a new high school or renovate its middle school, and the change is not fair to Chatham.

“To say that if we don't do this we can't have and independent elementary school in Chatham is not right,” he said.

Others argued that Chatham should get something in return for helping Harwich out financially. Elaine Gibbs said the town should have negotiated with the regional school committee and asked that it turn over land on Stepping Stones Road for possible affordable housing development in exchange for the school funding formula change. But Tolley noted that the committee heard that request last week and is open to it (see separate story). The change to the regional agreement was approved on a voice vote.

Voters also authorized the select board to refile state legislation to create a 2 percent surcharge on real estate sales of $2 million or more, with the proceeds going toward affordable housing, and to refile a bill to create a housing trust that would address both affordable and attainable housing. The current affordable housing trust can only spend money on housing for people making up to 100 percent of the area median income (AMI), while the new trust would include folks making up to 200 percent of AMI. Both were approved at last year's annual town meeting but were not taken up at the last legislative session.

Resident Seth Taylor's proposal to seek legislative approval to institute a real estate exemption for residents and extend the tax break to non-residents who rent their homes to year-round residents was defeated. The proposal would have lowered property taxes for residents with homes valued at less than $2.5 million, Taylor said. Economic development committee chair Luther Bates said the group supported the proposal as another tool to help year-round residents meet the high cost of living here; it could save the average resident taxpayer $800 a year while only increasing non-resident homeowners' taxes by about $200, he said. The finance committee opposed the proposal, with Avellar calling it “an abomination,” while it won the backing of the select board on a split vote.

Voters approved an increase in the local room occupancy tax from 4 to 6 percent, with 1 percent of the revenue going to affordable housing and the other 1 percent going to support Chatham Elementary School.

Voters also approved a $2.3 million water department budget; $2.5 million in capital spending; $300,000 for dredging; $1,495,555 for improvements on the Eldredge Garage property, including a new building with rest rooms and vehicle charging stations; and $50,000 to study potential town use of the former Chatham Health and Swim Club property. Town meeting agreed to implement a revised waterways bylaw; modified the zoning bylaw to make it easier for homeowners to add accessory dwelling units and established incentives for historic preservation; approved a $150,000 nuisance remediation fund for the board of health and a bylaw that bans the use of unencapsulated foam in waterways; and approved a change to the town's home-rule charter that changes the document's review period from once every five years to every 10 years.

Voters rejected a petition article asking the town to purchase for former Monomoy Theatre property.