TRURO — It was a short but not sweet town meeting on Saturday, Sept. 26.
All 17 warrant articles passed, the weather was balmy, and 243 people (or 12 percent of registered voters) showed up, despite the fact that, due to the pandemic, the quorum had been reduced to 25 by the select board.
Yet a consistent note of discord kept coming from a minority of voters who questioned nearly every attempt to transfer revenue to be used for affordable housing.
The meeting, held outdoors on a lovely day on the Truro Central School ballfield, started out with a quick dispatch of eight routine articles in a “consent agenda,” which bundles uncontroversial matters into a single question to save time. The $20 million annual operating budget also passed with little discussion.
The agreeable mood turned sour at Article 11, which asked voters to consider transfers from the town’s free cash account. Free cash consists of unrestricted funds from the preceding fiscal year — actual receipts in excess of budget estimates, and unexpended funds from town department budgets. These transfers are routine, but this year, one transfer of $400,000 into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund raised many objections, and it became clear that several people believed the money was earmarked for the 39-unit affordable housing development on Highland Road in North Truro, known as the Cloverleaf, which is still going through the permitting process before the zoning board of appeals.
Though the select board chair, Robert Weinstein, and Town Manager Rae Ann Palmer said that the money is put into a trust and is not earmarked for a particular project, many voters didn’t buy it. They had watched a Sept. 10 meeting of the housing authority at which members of the authority discussed their intention to ask Palmer to move money from free cash to help pay for the Cloverleaf if it receives the necessary ZBA permit.
Chair Kevin Grunwald confirmed that the housing authority will ask for funds for the Cloverleaf; this is no secret, he said. He said towns typically provide funding for approved affordable housing developments. Such contributions were part of the original bid submitted in 2018 by the developer. The project needs $600,000 in town funds, housing authority member Carl Brotman said at the Sept. 10 meeting.
Towns typically contribute to such projects, Grunwald said. The Cloverleaf would be the largest single housing project in town history. Less than three percent of Truro’s housing stock is currently considered affordable under state guidelines.
The Affordable Housing Trust Fund is where the town keeps money for that purpose; the select board decides how it is to be used. Since Cloverleaf is still going through permitting, contributions to the project would be premature, Palmer said.
Cheryl Best asked why the town should contribute to a for-profit developer — Community Housing Resource of Provincetown — when it is already receiving federal and state subsidies. Ted Malone, the president of Community Housing Resource, has been both attacked as a profiteer and defended as an unusually civic-minded entrepreneur in recent months. Planning board member Peter Herridge has waged a campaign against Cloverleaf and described Malone in vulgar terms as someone who “will try to sleaze in any way that makes him money.”
John Slater spoke out against a motion to vote on all the free cash transfers together, instead of each one being considered separately. He said the $400,000 transfer to the housing authority was a big enough ticket to warrant its own discussion.
Nathalie Ferrier said, “$400,000 is a lot of money,” and that she would like to know the specific use.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” said Richard Wood. Clearly, he said, a contingent at the meeting didn’t like the Cloverleaf. “If we have an issue,” Wood said, “let’s not pack this meeting with naysayers. Let’s go to the select board — that’s the right path.”
The free cash transfer article passed by a show of hands. But the same debate came up again on Article 15, related to putting $150,000 in Community Preservation Act revenues into the housing trust fund. This, too, ultimately passed.
Raphael Richter, who came to the meeting with his three-year-old son, called the antipathy toward the housing funds “unfathomable,” given the hot real estate market, which is making it even harder for locals to afford to own or rent in town.
“It’s very offensive for those who live and work year-round in this community,” he said of the opponents of funding affordable housing.
Grunwald said that 50 percent of the renters in town pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent. They are “housing burdened,” he said. “We are talking about our neighbors.”