CHATHAM — Summer visitors will be able to continue to park at the old Eldredge Garage property this summer, but it’ll cost them.
In what will be the town’s first experiment with paid parking in downtown Chatham, selectmen this week endorsed a plan to charge visitors – but not Chatham residents or taxpayers – to park at the town-owned site this summer.
The recommendation came from the Eldredge Garage property planning committee, which voted on March 22 in favor of having selectmen adopt a parking plan that includes paid parking at the site, but with an exemption from payment for town residents and taxpayers.
“The committee sees this as an opportunity to test paid town parking in downtown and to recoup some of the cost from the purchase of this property,” committee Chairman Brad Schiff wrote in a letter to selectmen last month.
Selectmen Chairman Cory Metters said Tuesday that he believes some action is needed for the 1.4 acres of land, purchased by the town for $2.5 million at a special town meeting last year.
“I think we need to address that property,” he said. “I don’t want it sitting idle for several months this summer.”
For years, the Eldredge family operated a paid parking lot at the site. Selectman Shareen Davis said if those 60 or so parking spaces are left unused, it would be a loss to the business community.
“A short-term plan for the summer might be a good way to test the waters on the use of the property,” she said. The committee is still reviewing a number of proposals for the long-term use of the site.
In the past, downtown merchants and restaurateurs have opposed the use of parking meters or other methods of charging for parking, saying it would be bad for business.
Board member Dean Nicastro agreed that the summer would be a good opportunity to test public sentiment about paid parking.
“If you have a summer without it, without paid parking, and you want to institute it down the line, it’s going to be even more difficult,” he said. Nicastro said he believes that overnight parking should not be allowed at the site, which could be used without much additional investment by the town. While neighbors have argued for landscaping that would help screen cars from view, “I’m not sure that’s necessary this summer,” Nicastro said. The paid parking lot will be a trial, he said.
“The whole point of the committee was, we’re approaching the summer, we need to do something there,” he said.
Metters agreed that overnight parking should not be allowed.
“I would also want to be realistic about the threshold of parking we would allow,” he said. While the site no longer includes the massive livery stable that occupied the land for 112 years, parking should only be allowed this summer in areas where it took place before, Metters said. The Eldredge family chiefly used the vacant lot on the west side of the property for parking.
By unanimous vote, selectmen accepted the planning committee’s recommendation and instructed staff to develop a plan for implementing paid parking there this summer. Details about how people would pay for parking and enforcement were not discussed. The staff plan will then be returned to selectmen for review.
With little debate, special town meeting voters on Jan. 23, 2017, voted in favor of the purchase, 277 to 26. David Oppenheim, one of the residents and business owners who helped arrange the purchase, said buying the land also prevented it from intense development and would honor the wishes of the late family patriarch William Eldredge, who wanted the town to have the opportunity to buy the land that had been in his family for more than 100 years.
The former livery stable, while historically significant, was unable to be salvaged. Last March, with Eldredge family members somberly watching, crews razed the structure that had held watch over the east end of town for more than a century.
The only remaining structure on the land is the former gas station building at the front of the property, which is in disrepair. Plans are being considered to either preserve that building or to raze and rebuild it, possibly for use as a public rest room or as a ticket office for a paid parking operation.