CHATHAM — A partnership of local business owners and residents has stepped up to save the former Eldredge Garage property for parking or other public uses.
The consortium has signed a purchase and sale agreement for the two parcels at 365 Main St., with the goal of helping the present owners clean up any pollution at the site before razing the buildings and making the land available for the town to purchase. Negotiations are still ongoing, and a full environmental analysis of the site is expected to begin shortly.
The board of selectmen plan to call a special town meeting for Jan. 23 to put the purchase before voters. On Tuesday the board deferred a vote on calling the meeting, however, pending a discussion on releasing executive session material related to the purchase.
Selectmen twice recommended against having the town purchase the property, largely over concerns about the potential cost of an environmental cleanup at the site, which for years was used for auto maintenance and storage.
Speaking on behalf of the group of potential buyers, David Oppenheim said the goal is to give Chatham voters the opportunity to protect the property “from dense commercial or residential development and retain its use for parking and open space, for now and future generations.” The names of the other members of the group have not been disclosed, but it has been described as a diverse group of around a half-dozen residents, taxpayers and business owners.
Oppenheim declined to specify the terms of the proposed sale, but said the goal is to help the current owners present the town with a clean site for possible purchase. When it was first offered for sale, the property had a selling price of around $2.5 million. Its assessed value is just over $1.99 million. How much voters will be asked to pay for the property is unknown at this time.
The Eldredge Garage, though privately owned, already provides a number of parking spaces in the congested downtown area. Although the land won't solve the shortage of downtown parking, “if it's removed and developed, it will become part of the problem,” Oppenheim said. More than an acre and a half in size, the two parcels that make up the property include frontage on Main Street and a vista of Little Mill Pond, “which we think would be great open space,” Oppenheim said.
The members of the consortium were disappointed when the majority of the board of selectmen twice opted against trying to purchase the property. The majority of board members worried that the potential groundwater contamination on the site could be costly for taxpayers to clean up. But the scope of any contamination is not yet known, Oppenheim said. So far, “the professionals do not think this is going to be a major [cleanup] site,” he added.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said he believes the selectmen would support purchasing the land if the potential environmental hazards are abated. “We couldn't see our way clearly as a board to do all the necessary cleanup,” he said. “That's why we didn't bite on it.” Dykens praised the consortium for its initiative.
“It at least gives town meeting the ability to say yea or nay on this purchase,” he said.
A number of important questions remain, beyond even the results of the detailed environmental assessment. The property is within the Historic Business District, where a permit is needed to demolish or move buildings. The Historic Business District Commission has the authority to prevent the demolition of the buildings on the site should it deem them historically significant to the town.
Working with the consortium, the Eldredge family will now go about obtaining those permits. The buildings are structurally unsound and unfit for reuse, Oppenheim said. Generally, the HBDC consults with the Chatham Historical Commission on any demolition applications.
“I'm sure that the HBDC will do their job,” Dykens said.
Built around 1904 by Joseph D. Eldredge, the large barn at the rear of the property housed horses and buggies that were used to pick up passengers from the railroad station. When automobiles became prevalent, the business became a service station, an operation that continued until 1974. The family now operates a paid parking lot and a shuttle service to Lighthouse Beach. At various times, parts of the building were used to house the town's fire engines and a bus, and it was a favorite gathering place for townsfolk for square dances, cribbage games or community dinners.
It remains to be seen what happens if town meeting voters reject the purchase. Oppenheim said he is optimistic the purchase would win approval. It is not the group's goal to act unilaterally on the purchase, he said.
“Our only goal at this point is to resolve the problem so the town can vote at a special town meeting.”
Dykens praised the consortium members.
“This is a very innovative approach,” he said. “This group is not looking to make money.”
Selectmen Tuesday postponed a decision on calling a special town meeting until their Nov. 8 meeting. Seth Taylor declined to vote on the matter until the board discussed whether to release material from executive sessions related to the Eldredge property. The public should have access to that material in order to determine how to vote on the issue, he said.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said town counsel has advised against releasing the material at this time, but Taylor said that decision lies completely within the purview of the board.
Vice Chairman Cory Metters noted that Chairman Dykens was not at Tuesday's meeting, and he preferred to have all five board members present to discuss releasing the executive session material. At next Tuesday's meeting, selectmen will address releasing the material before taking a vote on calling the special town meeting. Taylor said if the board agrees to release the material, he will support calling the special meeting.
Board members indicated a snow date for the Jan. 23 meeting would be Jan. 30.