CHATHAM — A week after town meeting voters rejected it, the proposal to build a new senior center could soon be making a comeback. A revised plan—likely on a different parcel of land—could be back before voters as early as this summer.
“I think we all kind of agree generally we have to move ahead,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said Monday. “I believe that we need a new council on aging building.” Delaying the project by a full year will likely result in significant cost increases, he noted. When voters see the project again, their concerns need to be answered.
“It’s more than location. It’s also understanding what the COA does, and understanding how the COA costs were determined,” Cocolis said.
COA board vice chairman Barbara Segall said she believes some of those at town meeting don’t have a clear understanding of the types of programs that are offered at the senior center.
“I realized that many residents who voted negatively have no idea what we offer at the COA,” she said. Before coming back with a revised proposal, the COA needs to rectify that problem, she noted.
“I think we should fast-track this,” Cocolis said. “We have a lot of work done,” and town officials already trimmed down the proposed facility from 14,000 square feet to around 10,000. Much of the research and planning has already taken place, Cocolis noted. “I don’t think we start from zero.”
“I think we should be thinking about a summer town meeting, perhaps in August,” board member Dean Nicastro said. If the town had advanced a plan to rebuild the senior center on its current site on Stony Hill Road, it would’ve passed town meeting, he said.
“The location is what killed it,” Nicastro said. While the $6.6 million proposal failed to get the needed two-thirds majority, most voters still favored it, he added.
In the early phases of the project, selectmen considered several privately owned parcels before deciding to pursue a plan to use town-owned land for the senior center. Searching for a location that provided both adequate parking and a convenient location, the board reviewed four potential town sites. In addition to Middle Road, the community center and the current Stony Hill Road site, the board considered a location near Volunteer Park on Sam Ryder Road. That site was rejected not only because of its remoteness from downtown Chatham, but because it was purchased for conservation. Had the board pursued the Volunteer Park site, it would have required special approval from town meeting, a vote of the state legislature, and a trade-off by the town to convert other parcels to conservation land.
Critics of the Stony Hill Road site said the land was too small to accommodate a larger senior center, and its steep terrain would have posed a challenge. Using that land would also have required the town to find temporary quarters for the senior center during construction.
While some citizens liked the idea of locating a new council on aging on the fields behind the community center, others lamented the loss of those fields, which are used for recreation programming. Some said the additional building would create too much traffic congestion on the site.
In the end, selectmen selected the Middle Road site largely as a compromise, rather than attempting to build consensus behind any of the other locations.
“We really have a limited menu of town-owned properties,” Nicastro said this week. If voters are willing to pay a premium, “maybe we do buy a piece of property, if it is, in fact, the best place to put it,” he said.
“If we add a private parcel to the conversation, it’s going to increase the cost,” Selectman Cory Metters said.
Board Chairman Shareen Davis proposed having the board hold a working session to devise a plan for moving ahead with the senior center plans.
Resident David Whitcomb, a supporter of the senior center plan, agreed that the location was the problem with the current proposal. If private property owners believe they have land that would be suitable for a senior center, Whitcomb urged them to contact the town manager’s office.
Much of the COA planning funds approved by voters in 2018 have been spent, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said, and unless a new plan calls for a two-story building rather than the current single-story design, much of the additional planning work can likely be done in-house.
The town has been planning the replacement of the current senior center for years; it was put on hold in 2011 while the town pursued construction of a new fire station, which was seen as the more dire need. The existing building is cramped and was not designed for use as a council on aging; town officials said the structure lacks adequate program spaces and makes access difficult for people with mobility problems.