New Group To Brainstorm Uses For Eldredge Garage Property

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Conservation , Parking , Historic preservation

The historic property was home to a large livery stable, pictured here. The structure was in an advanced state of disrepair and could not be salvaged. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM In an organizational meeting last Thursday, members of the new Eldredge Garage Property Planning Committee said they'd already received scores of suggestions for the re-use of that prime downtown real estate.

The nine-member panel was chosen by the board of selectmen to review the potential uses of the property at 365 Main St., which was purchased by town meeting last January for $2.5 million. The closing on the property, delayed from last month, is expected to happen before the end of the year.

The committee unanimously chose member Brad Schiff as chairman and John Kaar as vice chairman, and scheduled its next meeting for Thursday, Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. The following morning, Dec. 1 at 8 a.m., the group will be holding a site visit at the property.

Schiff noted that, aside from two people who are neighbors of the property and two others who are members of the finance committee, selectmen appointed every applicant who sought to be on the planning committee. Under the town bylaw, finance committee members are not allowed to serve on other boards and committees, he said. Town counsel also advised selectmen against choosing abutters of the property to serve on the committee, saying it could violate conflict of interest rules.

“The board appointed everyone else who applied to be on this committee,” Schiff said. Still, the committee is eager to hear input on the property from abutters, finance committee members and the community at large, he said.

Business owner David Oppenheim, who led the consortium that arranged the land purchase, said he owns property nearby and hopes the committee will consider abutters' perspective.

“I know this board will value their input,” he said.

 Comprising 1.4 acres of land fronting Main Street in the busy downtown area, the property 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 argued that the property is a rare find, and the special town meeting last January agreed, voting 277-26 to fund the purchase. The land deal was brokered by a group of local merchants and property owners who worked with the Eldredge family to carry out environmental testing at the site, which once housed a service station. Selectmen had indicated that they would not buy the land without assurances that any contamination would be cleaned up.

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the contamination is limited to two small plumes that represent less than 10 percent of the property. The pollution includes low levels of degraded gasoline that apparently leaked from one or more underground tanks on the site. The contamination does not appear to have migrated off the site, and is not likely going to require active cleanup efforts.

“There's really no cost-effective way to do that,” he said, noting that the plumes will continue to naturally degrade over time. Should regulators require continued monitoring of the site, town officials have budgeted a small amount of money to do so, Duncanson said.

Proposed uses of the property have run the gamut from a park to workforce housing, but most agree that some portion of the land will be used for public parking, its present use. Committee members said they did not expect to make a recommendation in time for the next annual town meeting. But that raises the question of how the property will be used next summer, committee member Sandy Wycoff said.

“I don't think that it would be healthy for the town to take away the space and have it have no use without any oversight,” she said.

Committee member Dean Nicastro agreed, saying it makes no sense to forfeit the existing parking spaces while a permanent plan is being devised.

“Those people would want to park somewhere,” he said.

At their meeting next week, committee members will brainstorm long-term ideas for the property but will also recommend an approach for the interim use of the land.