CHATHAM – As a way around a 164-year-old state law that prohibits municipalities from contributing public money to private institutions, the town will buy a portion of the Chatham VFW property on George Ryder Road, with the purchase price going toward renovation of the post building.
At a single-article special town meeting next Tuesday, voters will be asked to purchase an L-shaped lot around the perimeter of the VFW property which currently holds parking and recreational facilities. The land, which abuts the town-owned airport property to the east and south, will be leased back to the VFW for a 50-year period, with a renewal option, for a nominal fee.
Chairman of Selectmen Dean Nicastro said Tuesday he couldn't disclose the purchase amount pending finalization of the deal with VFW officials, but he expected that it would be slightly more than $200,000. That's the amount the post sought in a petition town meeting article to renovate its facility, which is in need of maintenance work and a new heating system.
Nicastro said the town will also acquire a right of first refusal on the lot that contains the building.
The town sold both lots to the Brown James Buck VFW Post—the L-shaped lot in 1957 and the building lot in 1964—for $75 each. The combined lots contain 2.5 acres; the land to be purchased is about half of the total.
VFW officials initially sought Community Preservation Act funds for the project, but were turned down because the building was not historic. Town counsel determined that the town meeting petition article would likely run afoul of the Anti-Aid Amendment to the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, adopted in 1855 to prevent public money from being spent on Catholic hospitals and schools. Despite its antiquated nature, efforts to repeal the amendment have failed.
The special town meeting article is a “work around” rather than an evasion of the amendment, Nicastro said. The transaction will give the town ownership of a portion of the VFW land as well as the right of first refusal on the remainder of the property, should the post ever decide to sell in the future, and clearly has a public benefit, he said.
“We're getting the benefit of controlling this property for the future,” he said, noting its proximity to the airport. There's also the benefit of preserving the operation of the VFW, “which selectmen believe is a historical and cultural community asset to the town.”
Funds for the purchase will likely come from the town's free cash account, Nicastro said. The special town meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Monomoy Regional Middle School on Crowell Road.