CHATHAM – Selectmen voted Tuesday to support town purchase of the Eldredge Garage property at 365 Main St.
“It's a potential gem for the town, to accomplish multiple purposes,” said Selectman Dean Nicastro. Although primarily being considered to expand downtown parking, the 1.2 acres could also serve as open space and for historic preservation, he said.
The $2.5 million purchase will be put before voters at a Jan. 23 special town meeting. Although the board did not vote directly on how the purchase will be financed, members favored asking town meeting to authorize borrowing the purchase price, with grants and potentially community preservation funds used to reduce the borrowed amount.
Selectmen earlier this year rejected purchase of the property, which contains a run-down though historically significant garage building as well as a former gas station. However, they agreed to reconsider their position when a group of residents and business owners offered to act as go-betweens with the Eldredge family; the group was primarily concerned with preventing development of the property and using it to increase downtown parking. The group entered into a purchase and sales agreement for the property and is helping the family conduct an environmental assessment to identify environmental problems that might have been caused by its decades of use as a gasoline and service station.
Last week, David Oppenheim, the group's spokesman, told selectmen all of the underground tanks on the property had been removed and two areas were identified for further investigation. He did not provide a further update at Tuesday's selectmen's meeting.
The historic business district commission recently ruled that the 112-year-old stable/garage building on the property, although historically significant, was in poor condition and could be demolished, though they required that as much historical material as possible be salvaged. A smaller compressor building on the property will also be demolished, but the Eldredge family agreed to preserve the former gas station building for some future use.
Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said he's been in favor of the purchase all along, mainly to keep the property from being developed. Town ownership of the Eldredge Garage land could provide “a nice break from the rather sizeable development that has taken place on the east end of Main Street,” he said.
“I think it's a wise purchase for the town. We have passed on so many purchases that we've regretted, so many, it would be unfortunate not to get this purchased,” he said.
Although concerns have been expressed about what's going to happen with the property, Nicastro said the town doesn't have to make that determination now.
“My goal is to prevent this property from being developed,” he said.
The vote was not unanimous, with Selectman Seth Taylor voting not to support the purchase. He said it was an “enormous amount of money” for what could be just 60 parking spaces. Given expenditures the town is looking at in the near future, “I don't think this is an appropriate expense.”
He added that the property is located in an area where growth and development are acceptable. It's that continued growth and development that has kept the town's tax rate low, he said.
Much of Tuesday's discussion focused on financing the purchase. Finance Director Alix Heilala provided two possible motions. One was to use free cash, but that would not leave enough in that account to finance next year's capital budget, she said. Capital expenditures would then have to be funded through the tax rate, which would increase 33 cents per $1,000 of valuation.
Authorizing the town to borrow the purchase price – the second option, which selectmen preferred – has several advantages, she said. The money would not have to be borrowed until the land is transferred to town ownership, whether that takes months or years. It also “gives the board time to look at some of the options down the line,” such as applying for grants or community preservation funds to reduce the amount that would have to be borrowed.
If the entire $2.5 million was borrowed, principal and interest payments over 20 years would total $3,484,375.
The actual motion on the floor of town meeting will determine the financing. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the warrant article supported by the board is broad enough to accommodate either financing option and would also allow the town to lease the property should the environmental cleanup take longer than anticipated. Town meeting approval would be required for a lease, she added, but at this point there have been no lease discussions and a separate article could probably not be drawn up in time to include in the special town meeting. If needed, an article to lease the property could be acted on at the annual town meeting in May. Approval of the purchase at the special town meeting should be sufficient commitment for the owners to move forward with the sale, she said.
Selectmen are scheduled to close the special town meeting warrant and vote on several remaining articles next Tuesday.