CHATHAM — It might prove unfeasible, but selectmen are asking staff to explore the reuse of the former water department building as a new senior center.
The property at 127 Old Harbor Rd., given to the town by the estate of Marion Nickerson Ellis, once served as school district offices and later became the water department's headquarters. It is now mostly vacant, with the adjacent barn used for storage and as a headquarters for the Lighthouse Beach Patrol.
Selectmen said the site is more strategically located and has better topography than the existing senior center. The board has previously expressed a desire to look for a new home for the council on aging, saying the building on Stony Hill Road is ill-suited to the purpose.
Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen briefed the board last week on the potential uses for the property. The gift was made to the town in 1971 on the condition that it be designated the “Augustus and Marion Ellis Playground.” Mrs. Ellis' will stipulated that no additional buildings can be placed on the property, “it being my purpose in making this gift that said land shall be used as additional playground and recreation area for the present site of the school located on the abutting property of the town.”
A plaque on the property acknowledges the gift, and the rear portion of the land is used as an open play area for elementary school children. The lot is about 1.8 acres in size and contains the former house, which was built around 1860, a barn and a small shed. It is municipally zoned.
Previous town committees have considered potential uses for the property, including the sale of the front portion, retaining the rear as a playground space. The buildings could also be renovated and leased, possibly following the model of the Marconi property in Chathamport, Whalen said. Any action that would require the removal of the house or barn would likely trigger the town's demolition delay bylaw, given the age of the structure.
Selectman Seth Taylor said it is important to value the wishes of the donor of the land, but nothing in the will apparently precludes the buildings from being moved on the property. Taylor said it might be possible to move the garage – a barn-like structure – and combine it with the main house, creating a space sufficient for the senior center. Program areas could be kept to the first floor, so seniors wouldn't need to navigate stairs or an elevator to reach activity rooms, he said.
There appears to be room for sufficient parking on the site, Taylor added, and the location is a favorable one.
“It moves them closer to downtown, a more accessible area,” he said. A senior center on that site would be close to stores, parks, the community center, and the elementary school. It's also within quick reach of fire department EMTs and paramedics, in the event of a medical emergency, Taylor argued.
As long as the existing buildings are deemed suitable for that purpose, “to me it makes sense to consider that possibility,” he said. Much analysis needs to be done to see if the idea is possible or cost-effective, he said.
“Do you put an addition on or move those buildings together?” board member Amanda Love asked. In either case, she said it's an idea worth exploring.
Board member Dean Nicastro agreed, saying the site is level, unlike the sloping land on the Stony Hill Road property.
With regard to Marion Ellis' will, Nicastro agreed that it is important to honor the conditions of the gift. But sometimes conditions of land gifts preclude a worthy use, “and you have to go into court to get permission to expand your usage to a different purpose.” Town Counsel has opined that as long as the portion of the property currently used for recreation is retained for that purpose, other parts of the lot can be used more flexibly, he said.
In a recent visit to the elementary school, Nicastro said he learned that school officials are preparing to renovate the playground. Nicastro said when he mentioned the idea of locating a senior center on the property, the principal said the arrangement might allow some interesting inter-generational activities.
Selectman Cory Metters said the property is an excellent one, and it should be retained by the town one way or another. Metters agreed that a senior center would be a valuable use of the site, even more so than a satellite parking lot for the nearby downtown area.
“I think the council on aging would trump parking,” he said. Even if it may be legally possible to explore options other than the ones specified in Mrs. Ellis' will, Metters said the town should stay within the scope of her wishes.
“It's just the right thing to do,” he said. Resident Norma Avellar agreed.
“I knew Marion Ellis for a long time,” she said. “She was very sure what she wanted to do with the property.”
Taylor made a motion to ask staff to consider using the property as a site for the council on aging, retaining the recreational area in the back. Other board members unanimously agreed.