CHATHAM — Town officials have not yet decided on long-term uses for the former Eldredge Garage property at 365 Main St., or even intermediate uses next summer. But they’ve got a plan for the short term: secure the property with a split-rail fence, and prohibit overnight parking there until at least the spring.
There’s a key exception: the property will be available for parking during First Night Chatham, which draws thousands of people downtown. But selectmen this week noted that there isn’t a great demand for downtown parking in the first few months of the year, and because of potential liability risks to the town, it’s best to keep cars out of the lot, at least at night.
The plans are all contingent on the town actually taking ownership of the property, which is slated to happen before the end of the year.
In a report to selectmen Tuesday, Community Development Director Katie Donovan noted that continuing to use the lot for parking would require potentially costly upgrades including drainage improvements.
“In recent storm events, this area has flooded,” Donovan’s report reads. “If this drainage issue is not resolved prior to utilizing the area, potential liability issues for the town could result.”
Donovan said Police Chief Mark Pawlina has concerns that the property might seem to be abandoned and could become an attractive nuisance for dumping, loitering, drug use or vandalism.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said it should be possible to secure the property without making it unattractive. He proposed extending an existing white picket fence across the front of the lot to control access.
Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said this kind of fence could not be erected before First Night, but with help from AmeriCorps Cape Cod workers, a standard split-rail fence could be put up. The fence could be used to control vehicle access to the property and to keep vehicles from driving on grassy areas. The work could be done in a single day, “providing the ground doesn’t freeze too quickly,” Duncanson said.
Town meeting appropriated $2.5 million for the property in January, and a recently appointed committee is holding regular meetings to recommend new uses for the land. Those proposals 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; it was previously used as a private paid parking lot. While town officials have expressed an interest in allowing parking to continue on the land next summer, any improvements requiring funds from town meeting would need to be identified quickly, given the tight time frame.
There were also concerns raised about the status of the small gas station building that still stands on the property. Town officials are considering the possibility of retaining the building for some future use, but the structure is in a state of deterioration. Nicastro worried that the building might be a fire hazard.
Duncanson said it would be possible to secure the building by boarding up the windows and doors, but doing so might create an eyesore.
Abutter David Oppenheim, who helped broker the town’s purchase of the land, said he believes the property can be secured with minimal fencing. Barring a heavy rainstorm, Oppenheim said, he believes the parking area would be safe to use for First Night. The building is unlikely to deteriorate much more in the next few months, he said, so locking the doors should be sufficient to keep it safe.
“There’s a lot of buildings along Main Street that are unoccupied” during the winter, Oppenheim said. “I’d personally rather not see it with plywood covering the windows.” He also suggested that the town install bollards or some other device to keep vehicles from hitting the small building.
Nicastro offered a motion to have town staff secure the property with split rail fencing, to ban overnight parking except during First Night and to install signs to that effect, and to secure the building appropriately.
Board member Jeffrey Dykens said he hopes it would be possible to allow the land to be used for parking during the winter, but Duncanson said staff would recommend having the property closed to vehicles after First Night. The need for parking in the winter is minimal, he said, and the uneven ground would be difficult for snowplows to clear.
“Plowing something like that would be difficult,” he said.
Nicastro agreed, saying the lack of lighting at the site, the uneven ground and the poor drainage all put the town at legal risk.
“The town is like a piñata for people who want to file lawsuits,” he said.
Selectmen unanimously approved Nicastro’s motion.
Even as the work continues on potential long-term uses of the land, a new wrinkle has developed. Officials have discovered that the town lacks an easement for a stormwater drainage pipe that runs under the property and the adjacent inn land, discharging into the marsh that leads to Little Mill Pond. Town counsel is examining whether, given the apparent age of the pipe, the town can claim prescriptive rights. Rather than discharge untreated stormwater to a sensitive waterway, the town would likely seek to build stormwater infrastructure on the property, discharging into the ground. This project would require new engineering and likely a separate appropriation by town meeting.