CHATHAM — Despite worries about excluding voters who leave town for the winter, selectmen have called a Jan. 13 special town meeting to consider buying land for a new senior center.
The warrant, which will be finalized shortly, will include a request for around $200,000 for additional design work, and an article for the purchase of the property 1610 Main St., using $750,000 to be funded by free cash. Because there will be no bonding for the land purchase, there will be no need for a ballot question or special election.
The actual senior center construction funds will be sought at the spring annual town meeting in May. Earlier this year, voters rejected a $6.6 million proposal to build a senior center on town-owned land on Middle Road, with many saying the location was too remote.
“I think the COA deserves a new facility,” Selectman Cory Metters said, but this proposal promises to be a “hot topic,” he noted. “Fundamentally I believe things like this should be done at an annual town meeting.” A winter special town meeting would likely generate a smaller voter turnout, and that might make it more difficult to obtain the two-thirds majority votes needed to approve the land purchase and to re-zone the lot for municipal use, Metters said.
Board member Dean Nicastro also opposed having a special town meeting in December or January. The senior center construction is expected to cost around $8 million, or the equivalent of about a third of the town’s annual budget, he noted. “Let’s face it. This is a potentially controversial selection,” Nicastro said. “I don’t think a project of this magnitude should be taken up in the middle of winter.” He acknowledged that the price of the project will likely increase if there are additional delays. “This is going to be a tall challenge to begin with,” Nicastro said.
“We have gone through a lot of work to get to where we are,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. The town has crafted a careful plan, and many citizens are eager for a new senior center. The town has conducted other important business at winter special town meetings, she noted. “I think this moves this project along as it should.”
Board member Peter Cocolis agreed. “If we keep on delaying this, we’re going to have a $10 million project because we’re just kicking the can,” he said.
“We’ve been talking about this project since 2015,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens added. “We really have done our due diligence.” The final decision on the project will still be left to the spring annual town meeting, Dykens said. “We all want the center. We all voted this site,” he added.
Resident Frank Messina said he supports having a winter town meeting, but said the effort deserves the full support of the board.
“If this thing is not unanimous by you folks, it will go down,” he said. Messina said he favors a special town meeting held before Christmas, since many snowbirds leave town after that time.
But resident Florence Seldin said holding the vote on the land purchase in the winter will disenfranchise older voters. Whether they support or oppose a new senior center, “I believe they have a right to be heard. It’s a very important project,” she said. And while voters in May will have the final say on construction, if approving the land purchase in January leaves them unhappy, “in May, you won’t have a building to put on it,” Seldin said.
“In no way is the council on aging attempting to diminish anyone’s rights or to pull a fast one,” COA board member Carole DeChristopher said. The senior center proposal has been discussed at length. “What we need to do is find a way for folks to have the information that they need, and then proceed forward in as expeditious a way as possible,” she said.
On a motion by Dykens, the board voted 3-2 to call a special town meeting for Monday, Jan. 13. Metters and Nicastro were the dissenting votes.
In addition to the senior center articles, the special town meeting warrant will likely include several unrelated adjustments for the current year’s budget related to the tornado response. There may also be an article to ratify a new contract with the Chatham Municipal Employees’ Association.