CHATHAM – The lack of affordable workforce housing is one of the biggest challenges facing local businesses. Some have tried to tackle the problem head on by buying or building housing for their workers. It hasn't always been successful.
A proposal by Chatham Bars Inn, the largest private employer in town with a staff of more than 500 during the summer season, is a case in point.
The inn wanted to convert a mixed office and residential building at 20 Chatham Bars Avenue into a dormitory for managerial staff members, but the proposal was stymied by a split zoning board of appeals. The inn ultimately withdrew the request, reserving the right to bring the proposal back to the zoning board in the future.
The inn was seeking to modify a 2018 special permit that allowed office space for up to 16 employees and a five-bedroom apartment in the building. Attorney Andrew Singer noted that the building was originally used as housing for the inn's chauffeurs and was a dormitory for workers for many years.
“Due to an urgent, ongoing need to find housing for more of its managers and supervisors, which is a need among most businesses,” the inn proposed increasing the number of bedrooms from five to 10 and reducing the amount of office space in the building to accommodate eight rather than 16 employees, Singer said. There would be a shared kitchen and each bedroom would be limited to a single occupant, he added. No changes would be made to the exterior of the building, and under the zoning bylaw, the number of parking spaces required would actually decline, but the current number will remain, he said.
“The site stays absolutely the same,” Singer said.
Neighbors weren't particularly happy with the proposal, and several wrote letters urging the board to deny CBI's request. Charles Baldwin suggested more people living in the building means a lot more traffic coming and going. “A lot of these employees of CBI work late,” he said.
The property is split between residential and commercial zones, Singer said, and serves as a transition between the downtown business district and the residential neighborhood to the east. Tipping the use of the property more toward residential is appropriate for the location.
“We don't believe there's going to be a noticeable change to the neighborhood,” he said.
Former Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim said the proposal was a good use for the property. “The need for all housing in town is terrible. It's very challenging for everybody, but for seasonal businesses and seasonal employees, it's awful,” he said.
Some zoning board members supported the proposal, others were skeptical and at least two opposed it outright.
“I think it's a good idea. We need space for our workers,” said David Thomson.
Paul Semple suggested the 2018 special permit was like a “camel getting its nose into the tent,” with limited residential use, only to be followed by this proposal to increase the number of bedrooms.
“But I'm not sure that I object to the ultimate objective, given the need for housing,” he said. He noted that under the zoning bylaw, a dormitory permit can be reviewed annually by the zoning board and revoked if the use is found to be out of compliance with the regulations or has become detrimental to the character of the neighborhood.
“That's a bit of a protection against this turning into something that might not be beneficial to the neighborhood or the town,” Semple said.
But chair David Nixon strongly opposed the request. The 2018 special permit was a compromise hammered out after considerable negotiations, he said, and increasing the residential component could make a situation that he said was “very tentative now” worse.
“It was very dicey for me back then and it's even more so today,” Nixon said.
Although the inn says the bedrooms would be limited to one person each, there's no way to control the number of guests, he added.
“These are young men and young women, they work long hours, they want to have a good time,” he said. “The neighbors live too close for us to allow the situation to get worse.”
Buck Upson agreed.
“Every employer on the Lower Cape is crying for more bedrooms, beds, affordable, attainable, low income [housing],” he said. “There's lot of people talking about it and devoting a lot of effort to it.” The plans suggest double beds in each room, which could mean more people.
“I don't think we're going to have a bed check,” he said.
Singer suggested the bylaw provision that allows review after a year was adequate insurance. “If there are problems, I'm comfortable that everyone's going to know about it,” he said.
A poll of board members revealed Semple and Thomson in favor, while Nixon and Upson were opposed. Because member David Veach recused himself from the hearing, a unanimous vote was necessary for approval. Without the votes, Singer asked permission to withdraw the request without prejudice — meaning it can return to the board at any time — which the board granted.