CHATHAM — In their search for a location for a new senior center, selectmen have narrowed the list to three sites: the existing site on Stony Hill Road, the rear of the Marconi property in Chathamport, and a private parcel at 1610 Main St., West Chatham.
With all board members saying they firmly support construction of a new council on aging building, selectmen are under pressure to find a location that voters will embrace. In May, town meeting narrowly rejected a proposal to build a new $6 million senior center on Middle Road, with many complaining about the remote location.
“We need to get this right,” Selectman Dean Nicastro said. If selectmen don’t find a proper site, “I fear that we’re not going to get a third bite at the apple,” he said.
Selectmen hope to get additional information on the three sites, as well as rough cost estimates for building a senior center on each, in time for another meeting soon. The board would like to have a new proposal back before voters either at a special town meeting in the fall or at next May’s annual town meeting.
Several selectmen expressed interest in the parcel at 1610 Main St., which is owned by Eastward Companies, which had proposed building a mixture of residential and commercial space on the 25,310-square-foot lot. Formerly owned by the Sibley family, the land was sold to Eastward Homes in 2016 for $437,500. The company has offered it for sale to the town for $900,000.
“It would be a really, really neat addition to that corridor,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. The land is flat, sufficiently large and centrally located, and is adjacent to town-owned conservation land. “Frankly, that’s a perfect site,” he said.
Selectman Peter Cocolis said he believes the land would be better used for workforce housing, but said it has potential for a senior center. “But is it worth the price?” he asked.
Board member Dean Nicastro said the location is very appealing, given its proximity to businesses and a medical center. Having a senior center there “might be a shot in the arm in that part of town,” he said, though he’s not confident the town would support adding $900,000 to the $6.6 million estimate to build the center. For that reason, Nicastro said his first choice would be to build a new senior center on the grounds of the existing one.
The Stony Hill Road site is centrally located, close to amenities, and familiar to current clients. Traffic is fairly quiet in the area, he added. According to preliminary work done by architect Joel Bargmann, it would be possible to build a two-story senior center there, along with parking for up to 80 vehicles. While some have faulted the existing building for having program spaces on three levels, a well-designed two-story building could function well, Nicastro noted. “These larger, one-story buildings have an institutional feel to them,” he said.
Re-using the current site would force the council on aging to find temporary program space for a year or longer.
“That is a significant challenge. We saw that with the fire department,” Nicastro said. In the interim, some of the senior center programs would need to be relocated to the community center or to area churches, he said. “The taxpayers of Chatham, through the Community Preservation Fund, have contributed almost $630,000 to various churches and other nonprofit institutions, and I’m sure they would be equally generous in helping us out” with temporary accommodations, Nicastro said.
Other board members said they could also support a senior center on the current site. Board Chairman Shareen Davis said she initially liked the inter-generational opportunities that would come with locating the council on aging near the community center, “but we heard a pretty strong voice against the community center” as a senior center site. Davis said her top two choices would be the existing site and 1610 Main St.
“I think they’re both very viable options for us to discuss and move forward to the next step,” she said.
The third location to be examined is the town-owned land behind the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center building known as the Hotel, a large hilly parcel that might be accessed via Old Comers Road. While the area is adjacent to a National Register Historic District, it does not appear to be within that district, Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen said. The town leases the buildings to the Marconi Center but retains ownership and control of the land.
“You can get to this property, but is it too far out?” Cocolis asked. Likewise, the board considered some property currently owned by the Diocese of Fall River near the Our Lady of Grace chapel on Route 137. The parcel is suitable for a senior center but is about as far from the center of town as the rejected Middle Road site.
In selecting its three top choices, selectmen reviewed around 30 town-owned sites and around eight private parcels. Of the town-owned sites, 16 were zoned for municipal use, including the Marconi campus and the newly acquired land near the VFW post on George Ryder Road. Of the 14 parcels of conservation land large enough for use for a senior center, staff recommended five for further exploration: land off Hamden Place, the former Hill and Edson properties, the Captain Harding House land and the Training Field Triangle. While it would be complicated and would likely require action by the state legislature and town meeting, conservation parcels can be reassigned for other purposes in some cases, Whalen said. But board members said they would oppose doing so.
Resident Betsy Abreu urged selectmen to reconsider that stance. In 1997, the town built Volunteer Park on a parcel that had been reserved for watershed and conservation use, creating playing fields for young people. While she said she’s in favor of conservation, “I don’t think taking an acre-and-a-third from 38 acres in the Golden Triangle is asking too much for our adult population,” she said. “We’ve done it for the children,” and now it’s time to provide for adult taxpayers, Abreu said.
Council on Aging board Chairman Barbara Segall said she favors the 1610 Main St. site. If building a new senior center would add $56 a year to the average property tax bill, buying the West Chatham parcel would only add $9 more, she said. If the board chooses to pursue reusing the current site on Stony Hill Road, they should know that the senior center will suffer during the construction.
“It would really wear down the program and the staff” to be in temporary accommodations for so long, Segall said.
Resident David Whitcomb said he also favors 1610 Main St., despite the $900,000 price tag. “It’s a reasonably priced property,” he said, and there may be creative ways to reduce the burden on taxpayers, like potentially using some of the revenue from the wastewater deal with Harwich, Whitcomb said. He reminded selectmen that they purchased the former Eldredge Garage property for $2.5 million with overwhelming support from town meeting voters.
Selectmen are expected to revisit the senior center site debate at a meeting in the near future, during which they may vote their final choice.