CHATHAM — On the advice of business leaders and others, the board of selectmen is revisiting its decision to turn down the possible purchase of the Eldredge Garage property.
A series of speakers argued that the land at 365 Main St. represents the last good opportunity to create additional public parking in downtown Chatham. In their public meeting Tuesday, selectmen voted unanimously to reconsider the purchase in the closed-door session that followed.
Specifically, members were expected to consider spending somewhere between $15,000 and around $40,000 to carry out a more detailed survey of potential underground pollution on the site, which was used for decades as a gas station and for auto repair and storage.
Business owner Sandy Wycoff said the parking shortage may be most noticeable during the 10-week of peak summer season, but the problem is acute for year-round residents who rely on revenue they make during that season. The Eldredge Garage property offers an opportunity for parking for downtown shopping and dining, weddings, delivery vehicles, and many other purposes including public rest rooms, she said. The rear part of the property, which is zoned for residential use, could either be preserved as green space or sold off to help defray the cost of the purchase, she argued.
“There are more possibilities than liabilities,” Wycoff said. With regard to environmental concerns, she said she agreed with resident Jane Harris, who wrote a letter saying the town has an obligation to find out the degree of any pollution on the site and to clean up that pollution to protect water quality.
Earlier this summer, selectmen decided to pass after holding preliminary talks with the Eldredge family on possible town purchase of the property. The purchase price at the time was $2.5 million, but that price may have since increased.
“The purchase price will be far less than the cost of walking away,” Wycoff said. There are “creative and collaborative ways” to fund the purchase, she added.
Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim said while the town keeps downtown Chatham clean and well maintained, it hasn't invested much money in capital infrastructure there the way it has at the fish pier. Just as it is right for the town to invest in the commercial fishing economy, it should invest in the downtown retail and hospitality sectors, he said.
Old Village Association board President Winnie Lear said residents in that neighborhood rely on the Eldredge Garage for parking and to accommodate large trucks bringing in construction supplies. The garage also provides important parking for Lighthouse Beach, and to lose it would only worsen congestion on Bridge Street, which is already crowded on beach days, Lear said.
Longtime business owner Marianne Lewis said her businesses also have locations in the congested French Quarter of New Orleans, where the city owns three large parking lots.
“They're not free. They're not inexpensive,” she said. It costs $10 to park there for any length of time, and $40 for special events, “but they are still full,” Lewis said. “Visitors will pay, because it is that or they don't come into town because they get fed up,” she said. She urged selectmen to revisit the purchase.
“This is the last bite of the apple that we're going to get, as a town,” she said.
Board member Cory Metters said he could support spending some funds for a more detailed environmental evaluation of the property.
“The town has spent more money on worse things,” he said. But with so many ideas about how the town might use the land if it succeeded in purchasing it, “it's a very complicated conversation,” Metters said.
Selectman Seth Taylor said it makes no sense to conduct the environmental analysis if the town doesn't intend to purchase the property. He said a less expensive approach would be to take by eminent domain the former bowling alley property near Kate Gould Park, now owned by Chatham Bars Inn. The town could pay a fair market value of $1.5 million for the land, which is closer to the center of town and contiguous to an existing town lot, he argued. The town has many large capital expenses in the works, and given that a small portion of the town's property tax base comes from downtown businesses, Taylor said he would consider the Eldredge Garage purchase if businesses agreed to pay a higher tax rate for it.
Board member Dean Nicastro said there's value to preserving the current use of the property – which provides paid parking in the summertime – and to keeping the land from being converted to condominiums or luxury apartments. He said he would support spending the funds to carry out the more detailed environmental analysis of the property, provided that doing so doesn't commit the town to a purchase.
Having worked at town hall for 25 years, selectman Amanda Love said she knows that the shortage of parking is a real problem. She said she's witnessed tour buses backed up on Cross Street, and visitors desperately looking for public rest rooms. Love said she would support creating an ad hoc committee to study the feasibility of acquiring the Eldredge Garage property.
Board Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said he voted against the land purchase previously but is willing to revisit the issue. Each time the town has turned down a major land purchase, it has looked back with regret a few years later, he noted.
“So here it is now. We do have a fairly critical piece of property in a lovely area of town,” he said. But the negotiations and planning for the parcel will be complex and should be carried out by elected selectmen rather than an ad hoc committee, he said.
Board members voted unanimously to revisit the topic in executive session.