CHATHAM — Selectmen will soon appoint a nine-member committee to examine the possible uses of the Eldredge Garage property at 365 Main St.
“It is clear we are going to have parking as a component at some level. We understand that and we've known that from the beginning,” Selectmen Chairman Cory Metters said last Tuesday. But various other ideas have been floated for the property, including a park, rest rooms, open space preservation or even workforce housing.
The new Eldredge Garage property planning committee will include two selectmen – Shareen Davis and Dean Nicastro – and seven others from the community. Board member Amanda Love, who was not present for last Tuesday's vote, sent a letter to Metters saying she favors having a representative from the Old Village Association, a downtown businessperson, and representative of West Chatham, South Chatham or another part of town outside the downtown area.
“That's consistent with my own thoughts,” Nicastro said. “The idea of having representatives or townspeople from different parts of the town is a very good idea.”
Davis concurred, saying she also believes the town's economic development committee should be asked to opine on the use of the land. The new committee should ultimately have members who represent a good balance of “preservation and commerce,” she said.
“I want to see as broad a brush on this as possible,” Metters said of the committee's membership. He said it won't be difficult to find people willing to serve, adding he already knows of five people who are likely to apply.
“I want to make sure the process is open and transparent,” Metters said.
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said she expects that the town will execute a purchase and sale agreement with the current owners on Oct. 2, shortly after a public comment period closes on a required “uniqueness determination” filing. By declaring the property unique for the purposes of the state's procurement laws, the town is exempted from a requirement that it advertise for other land acquisition proposals.
The property is actually unique in many respects. Comprising 1.4 acres of land fronting Main Street in the busy downtown area, it rises gently to the south, where it offers glimpses of Mill Pond, and is close to the town's retail center and the historic Old Village. Advocates for the purchase of the property argued that it is unlikely that the town will ever again have the opportunity to purchase such a large tract in the dense downtown area. Voters in January resoundingly agreed, voting 277-26 to spend $2.5 million for the purchase.
Goldsmith said that prior to the purchase, town staff will meet to devise a plan to control the interim use of the land, “to make sure that it's not just left open.” Once the property is safe and orderly, staff will support the new planning committee by helping flesh out any concepts for the use of the land. Staff will also make recommendations on funding sources for the work, potentially including the Community Preservation Act.
Ultimately, the committee will present its recommendations to the full board of selectmen, which will decide how the land will be used.
Though the committee was first proposed as an ad hoc working group, Selectman Jeffrey Dykens argued that it should be a fully fledged town committee. In any case, it will be subject to the Open Meeting Law, so its sessions will be advertised and open to the public to attend.
Because two selectmen will be serving as voting members, the board opens itself to the potential of an Open Meeting Law violation if a third selectman attends and comments. Town Counsel Patrick Costello advised that third selectman to avoid comments that might constitute deliberation, which is only allowed in posted meetings. Better yet, selectmen could post their own meeting at the same time and place as the planning committee's session, which would allow any members present to comment freely. Metters said he favors this approach, rather than impeding comment from the board.
The board was also asked to consider an offer by resident George Olmsted to hire his son, noted landscape architect James W. Olmsted, to draft plans for a new Eldredge Park for a small portion of the property. The younger Olmsted is a distant cousin of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park, Yosemite Park, the Arnold Arboretum and many other public spaces.
Nicastro said he spoke with George Olmsted, “and he's very comfortable with having his proposal referred to this task force when it's set up.” The board voted unanimously to refer the idea to the new planning committee.
Nicastro also thanked David Oppenheim and the other members of a consortium who brokered the purchase.
“We all know there are lots of possibilities,” Oppenheim said. The landscaping and presentation of the property “is going to be critical to sort of affirm the decision we made to buy it,” he said. Oppenheim said he also favors having a broad membership for the planning committee. A full 92 percent of voters approved the purchase, and “they were from all over town. It was a town-wide decision, and it should be a town-wide committee,” he said.