CHATHAM — Maybe having a new council on aging at the community center site or near Volunteer Park would have allowed more interaction between seniors and young people. But in the end, selectmen heard arguments from young and old alike that a town-owned parcel off Middle Road would be the best home for a new senior center.
The board voted unanimously to pursue plans for a new senior center on a wooded parcel near the transfer station rather than encroach on recreational spaces used by young families. The Middle Road site was the unanimous choice of the council on aging board and had strong support from many who crowded Monday’s selectmen’s meeting.
Senior Elsa Bastone said elders deserve a senior center surrounded by green space, quiet and solitude.
“This inter-generational stuff is way overrated,” she said. “As a senior, I want peace and quiet. I don’t want to hear rock music.”
Having decided to limit the search to town-owned land, selectmen were considering four locations for a council on aging building: the current site on Stony Hill Road, a field adjacent to the community center, a parcel adjacent to Volunteer Park in West Chatham, and the Middle Road site. Their choices were based on the land requirements for a 14,000-square-foot building recommended by a consultant – which had a cost estimate of $7 to $9 million – but selectmen say they might ultimately favor a building that is as small as 10,000 square feet. Last year staff recommended using 96,608 square feet of town-owned land on Middle Road which is part of a larger parcel that includes the transfer station and wastewater treatment plant.
The details will be hashed out by an owner’s project manager, to be hired using funds appropriated at the last town meeting, with the goal of seeking final approval for a new senior center at the May annual town meeting.
There was little support for the Volunteer Park site, which was purchased by the town around 1970 for the purposes of protecting the watershed. Selectmen also made it clear that they would not support any plan that sacrificed the little league field behind the community center.
Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro said having a senior center on the community center site would be disruptive to recreational activities there. He agreed that the Middle Road parcel would be the easiest to develop and would offer room for expansion, but said he favored rebuilding a senior center on the existing Stony Hill Road location, which is familiar to seniors and convenient to downtown.
Board member Peter Cocolis favored the Middle Road site or the community center, where there would be opportunities for seniors and teens to interact.
“If you look at Harwich, it’s one big building, and there’s plenty of room and plenty of parking,” he said.
Selectman Cory Metters said he initially opposed the Middle Road site over concerns that a senior center might preclude using some of the land for affordable housing in the future. Town officials showed conceptual plans suggesting that both uses might be possible on the tract. But building a senior center behind the community center would take up important green space used by kids and young families. “We all know those areas are used,” he said.
Board members Jeffrey Dykens and Shareen Davis said they favored the community center location, saying programs for seniors and young people would dovetail well, bringing both populations into the town center.
“That site is the heart of our town,” Dykens said, and bringing seniors to the community center site would make it “a true community center.” Building on the Middle Road site, where space is plentiful, might encourage planners to design a senior center that is larger than it needs to be, Dykens argued.
Davis said while some of the designs for the community center site seemed overwhelming, having the two buildings together would provide “a more inclusionary experience for the community.” The Middle Road site, “I feel, is too remote,” she said.
First to speak from the gallery was Meredith Fry, chairman of the parks and recreation commission, who said selectmen “blindsided” the commission by presenting options at the community center and Volunteer Park without consulting them. The community center is well used by people of all ages, and the fields and green spaces are used for countless programs that help young families, from summer camps and exercise programs to a summer free lunch program.
“What’s the point of having a commission if we’re not even part of the equation?” Fry asked. She urged selectmen to consider other locations for a new senior center “before throwing away our existing recreational space.”
Council on aging board member Carole DeChristopher said when the town needed a new police station and fire station, “we stepped back,” and now it’s time for a new senior center. The board chose the Middle Road site as a place that can meet seniors’ needs without impinging on the needs of young people.
“We were considering the common good,” she said. Building a senior center at the community center “would take away recreational space from the children. It would take away parking from the merchants in the summer,” DeChristopher added.
“Do we really need another building downtown?” parent Amanda Alten said. Adding a senior center at the community center would add traffic and ruin “a sacred space” for many, she said. “Our seniors deserve a beautiful space together, but so do our young people,” Alten said.
Davis said that, given how strongly younger families feel, she would be willing to consider a location other than the community center site. Dykens agreed. While he said he loved the idea of inter-generational programming, the voices in favor of Middle Road were passionate, well-informed and numerous.
“I’d be a fool not to support the Middle Road site,” he said with a chuckle.
Following the board’s unanimous vote in support of the Middle Road location, there was a round of applause from the gallery.