CHATHAM — Pledging to bring a new senior center proposal to voters this fall, Selectmen Monday outlined a plan to find a better site for the building, even if it’s smaller than the Middle Road parcel rejected by town meeting last month.
The town will issue a renewed request for proposals (RFP) from private property owners who would like to sell or potentially even lease land to the town on a long-term basis. Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen said the town conducted a review of all town-owned properties over a certain size back in 2016, looking for potential sites for a new senior center.
“We’re proposing to revisit that again as part of this process,” he said.
At the time, the town didn’t consider sites smaller than 84,000 square feet, but now, armed with specific building designs, officials are open to parcels as small as 58,000 square feet, Whalen said. Staff will review the inventory of town-owned parcels again “and see if we missed any with a potentially smaller area.”
Potential sellers of private land will need to respond quickly to the RFP, which will have a short window for submissions. Members of the public can also suggest a parcel via the project web page.
In a few weeks, the town will schedule a public meeting to collect more input on the project and its potential location, he added.
Town officials have also given consideration to two locations suggested at town meeting: the current DPW land off Crowell Road and the VFW parcel on George Ryder Road, said Whalen. The DPW land is sizable and close to town, but “the site does have a lot of activity on it,” Whalen said. Moreover, the property is permitted as a capped landfill where road sweepings and other contaminants are present, and the existing highway garage is part of the capping system, he said.
“Probably not a lot of people are aware of that,” Whalen said. If the property were to be reused, it would require relocating the public works department operations, including the fuel pumps used for town vehicles, he noted. The two main buildings on the site are also fairly new, having been completed in 2007.
As for the VFW site, “it’s not owned by us,” Selectman Peter Cocolis noted. “If they don’t want to sell it, it’s over.”
Board member Dean Nicastro said he believes that staff should generate a new list of potential sites for the senior center and then bring that list to the board of selectmen. While public input is key, “ultimately the responsibility is for this board of selectmen to show leadership on this issue and to make the determinations,” Nicastro said. “We need to quickly dispatch properties that have been proposed that appear, at least to me, to be non-starters. And this is one of them,” he said, referring to the DPW proposal. The public works buildings were completed just a dozen years ago and serve the town well, and “frankly I’m not interested in knocking them down,” Nicastro said. “I think this is a crazy idea.”
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens agreed, saying the town would need to find a new home for the DPW.
“We’re not going to add $3 million to this project because we like that site,” Dykens said.
“For $3 million, we can buy a really, really nice private site,” Selectman Cory Metters quipped. It may be necessary to pay a bit more for a suitable private parcel of land, “but the sky’s certainly not the limit,” he said.
Nicastro would also add the VFW land to his non-starter list, since voters just approved a 50-year renewable lease of the VFW parking lot and athletic fields. The VFW opted to retain ownership of the parcel where its building is located, and “I’m not interested in taking their property by eminent domain,” he said.
The town should take another look at the possibility of building a new council on aging building on the site of the existing senior center, Nicastro said. The town’s architects already presented plans for doing so, he noted.
Council on Aging Chairman Barbara Segall cautioned against focusing on small parcels of land for the new senior center.
“Will there be room for expansion?” she asked. If the center does not include space for an adult day program, the land should be large enough to accommodate this as a future addition, Segall noted. Resident Bernie Pfeifer agreed.
“You don’t have to add the memory care unit now, but I think you should add the footprint,” he said.
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. At the annual town meeting last month, a majority of voters favored the $6.6 million plan for building the senior center on Middle Road, but the tally was 33 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.