Officials Debate Value Of Eldredge Garage Property

By: Alan Pollock

The Eldredge Garage property. Selectmen Tuesday voted to support town purchase of the downtown land. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM In the summertime, a parking space in downtown Chatham can be priceless. But breaking down the potential cost of the Eldredge Garage property, depending on how the land is used, the price of a parking space there can be pegged at somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000.

Speaking for a coalition of business owners and residents seeking to have the town acquire the land at the upcoming Jan. 23 special town meeting, Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim said he believes the number is nearer the bottom of that range. If it were to be purchased for $2.5 million and improved with an unpaved parking lot, rest rooms and a park overlooking Mill Pond, the total cost would likely be about $2.75 million. And if the land yields about 110 parking spaces, the cost to taxpayers would be $25,000 per parking space.

While the coalition does not recommend doing so, the rear portion of the land could be removed from the sale, or sold by the town, creating three or four house lots, Oppenheim said. The sale of that land would greatly reduce the cost to taxpayers of each parking space, he noted.

Oppenheim presented the cost scenarios after giving a presentation at the Chatham Retired Men's Club on Friday, where he said he heard people saying the cost would be closer to $50,000 per space, based on the creation of only 60 parking spaces and higher upfront costs.

“I don't think that's a fair assessment of the property,” he said. “We're not spending $50,000 per space.”

But selectman Seth Taylor said it's too early to know if that cost estimate is too high, since it's yet to be decided how the property might be landscaped and how much green space would be retained. If the rear of the property is kept undeveloped, possibly as a small park, it would generate no revenue for the town, either through its sale or through future property taxes, Taylor said.

“You cannot give a value to open space,” he said.

Whether the cost per space is $25,000 or $50,000, “it's a lot of money,” he said. And when it comes to capital projects, “we have a lot of things out ahead of us,” Taylor added. Ultimately, every citizen will have to analyze the costs and benefits of purchasing the land, he noted.

Oppenheim argued that it is possible to give a value to open space, and taxpayers do so every time they consider the purchase of conservation or park land.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said the land is even more valuable given its location.

“It is a prime piece of property in the east end of Main Street,” he said, and it would be foolish for the town to pass by the opportunity to acquire it. The town has rejected other land purchases and later came to regret doing so, Dykens said.

Selectman Dean Nicastro said he's not moved by the per-space cost debate.

“Parking spaces, for me, is sort of a secondary consideration,” he said. “I just don't want the property developed.”

Voters at the special town meeting will make the ultimate decision about the property. On split votes, selectmen previously opted against purchasing the property from the Eldredge family, worrying that the service station that occupied the site for decades could have caused costly environmental problems. Answering that concern, the private coalition offered to acquire the property and evaluate any cleanup needs, ideally presenting the town with a clean site to purchase.

Oppenheim said most of the environmental testing is now complete, and officials are awaiting the results of the tests. Preliminary reports from the eight test wells and 16 test borings indicate that there is likely no contamination on the rear portion of the land near Mill Pond, nor on the portion fronting Main Street on the west side. While underground tanks have already been removed, the environmental firm intends to use ground-penetrating radar to look for any other buried items on the property. With the consent of the conservation commission, some of the underbrush behind the main building has been cleared to allow for that equipment to be used, Oppenheim said.

Work is underway to photograph and document the historic elements on the site, he added. Once preservationists are satisfied, crews will begin the process of demolishing the main building, which has been determined to be unsafe. That work could begin as early as late February or early March, Oppenheim said.