CHATHAM – Although the chief reason most voters at Monday night's special town backed the purchase of the Eldredge Garage property was to expand downtown parking, the land could be put to a number of other uses, according to town officials.
Open space, public rest rooms, and even workforce housing are among the possible uses for the 1.4 acre site. Selectmen will have the ultimate authority to decide the use, although funds to improve the property will require town meeting approval.
By a 277 to 26 vote, the meeting approved spending $2.5 million to acquire the property at 365 Main St. Many saw it as an opportunity to preserve the last major piece of downtown open space.
“I think it makes sense to preserve this unique property on the east end of Main Street, and preserve its future use in some way,” said Chairman of Selectman Jeffrey Dykens.
It took voters less than 90 minutes to complete the 11-article warrant. In addition to the Eldredge Garage purchase, voters agreed to add a lot in West Chatham to adjacent open space, took care of a number of housekeeping measures and approved two articles designed to assist property owners having difficulty paying back taxes.
Selectmen previously rejected purchase of the Eldredge Garage because of the possibility of contamination from years of use as a service station. They changed their position after a group of business owners and residents, concerned that the potential to add much-needed parking to downtown could be lost if the property were to be developed, stepped in and negotiated a purchase and sales agreement with the Eldredge family. The group provided financing and guidance to help the family undertaken an environmental assessment of the land – a final report is in the works – and develop a plan to remove the historic garage/livery building, which although historic was determined to be unsafe.
“We felt the town must have the option to protect the property from intense development,” said Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim, the group's spokesman. They also wanted to honor the wishes of the late family patriarch William Eldredge, who wanted the town to have the opportunity to buy the land that had been in his family for more than 100 years. “It is the last major piece of open space downtown,” Oppenheim said.
Selectmen backed the purchase 4-1, while the finance committee endorsed it unanimously after flip-flopping several times, said Norma Avellar. Ultimately the committee decided public ownership of the land would enhance Main Street, she said, adding that “those who will decide how to use it will have the most exciting job this year.”
“It could be many things, many things that invite people downtown,” she said.
The land currently has about 60 parking spaces, and Selectman Dean Nicastro said he could see about 20 to 30 more being added, “but no more than 90. We don't want it to look like a cheesy parking lot.” Other uses he envisions for the property include open space – land at the rear overlooks Mill Pond – rest rooms and renovation of the gas station building, which will be preserved, to house historical memorabilia about the property.
But his main purpose in supporting the purchase was to keep the land, which could be worth as much as $3 million as single-family house lots, from being developed either residentially or commercially, which would only add to the downtown parking problems, Nicastro said.
“This is the last opportunity the town of Chatham will have to protect this property from development, Nicastro said.
Michael Westgate suggested the property could also be used to build workforce housing to help keep young people in the community. “This is a unique opportunity to shape the future of that part of Chatham,” he said.
Seth Taylor was the lone voice of opposition on the board of selectmen. He said he could not support the purchase given the expenses he sees down the road and urged voters to judge for themselves whether the cost of the land was worth the benefits.
“In a perfect world I would love to own the property, I truly would, but in my world, having analyzed the cost of this to the town...I couldn't justify the cost versus the potential benefit,” he said.
Resident Norman Pacun pointed out that the article did not include funding for improvements to the property, which he estimated could cost a half million dollars or more.
“Exactly what we are paying for tonight is unknown,” he said. Voters are giving the board of selectmen “carte blanche” to decide the property's future. “Surely this is a decision that we at town meeting ought to be able to make,” he said.
Finance committee member Florence Seldin said the article was to authorize the purchase of the property and any additional expenditure would need town meeting approval. The finance committee asked that the board of selectmen have public discussions about the property's future, she added.
David Lycos suggested the vote be put off until the annual town meeting. But downtown merchant Scott Hamilton said timing is an issue and urged voters “not to miss the opportunity we have tonight to do the right thing.”
Voters approved $125,000 in Land Bank funds to purchase a buildable lot on Valley Farm Road that is “smack dab in the middle of” 18 acres of open space owned by the town and Chatham Conservation Foundation, said Jack Farrell. The Foundation will contribute $55,000 toward the purchase “to keep this 18-acre parcel pristine forever,” he said.
Also approved were two articles aimed to address issues related to delinquent property taxes. One creates a town bylaw that allows the town to waive up to half of the interest owned on back taxes on properties in tax title, provided the entire principal is paid. There are 56 properties currently in tax title, said Finance Director Alix Heilala, and if all applied approximately $170,000 in interest is eligible for the waiver.
An article seeking a “moral obligation tax abatement” – a term Moderator William Litchfield took exception to, but said had been used as “shorthand” – allows the town to use $7,197 from the overlay surplus to cover outstanding taxes and interest on a Habitat for Humanity house resulting from numerous errors dating back to 2002. Both Taylor and Selectman Amanda Love, who formerly worked in the tax collector's office, opposed the measure, saying the property owner was responsible for making sure the assessment was correct and apply for an abatement. Love said the state department of revenue rejected the abatement and she worried about the precedent the measure could set.
Others cited errors on the part of the town and a bank and numerous unsuccessful attempts by the property owner and Habitat to get to the bottom of the situation.
“This was not fair and she has been trying for years to get to this resolved,” said long-time Habitat volunteer Nancy Erskine.
Dykens said the article's approval would not set a precedent and the circumstances were unique, “the holes in Swiss cheese lining up.” Selectmen spent hours discussing the issue, which he said “should have just been a housekeeping measure.”
Voters agreed and approved the article on a voice vote.
Voters also reauthorized the filing of two home-rule petitions with the legislature, paid outstanding bills, approved three budget adjustments and authorized $375,000 from water revenue to accelerate the replacement of old water meters with new automated meters. With the current door-to-door system, it takes about three months to read all the water meters in town; the automated meters can all be read in a matter of days.