Vote On New COA Site Saturday

By: Tim Wood

The Chatham Senior Center is in need of replacement.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Voters at Saturday's special town meeting will be asked to endorse a site for a new senior center for the second time in less than a year.

Last May, town meeting rejected building a $6.6 million center to house council on aging programs on town-owned land off Middle Road. At the Jan. 4 meeting, which takes place at 1 p.m. at Monomoy Middle School on Crowell Road, voters will be asked to set aside $750,000 in free cash to purchase 1.3 acres at 1610 Main St. for a senior center, as well as $130,000 for a feasibility study, final design and cost estimate for a new facility at the site.

Council on aging officials have been biding their time for a decade as new buildings were built for other town departments. Senior center plans were put on hold while a new fire station was built, and the current process has been underway since a 2015 feasibility study projected increasing needs for programs for seniors as the town's population ages in the coming years. The current senior center on Stony Hill Road, COA officials argue, is inadequate for current programs and will not be able to accommodate increasing needs in the future.

Approval of article 4 to purchase the property only earmarks the funds, officials say. Final purchase of the two-lot property is contingent upon final approval of construction funding at the May annual town meeting, as well as passage of a ballot question to borrow the money. A zoning amendment will also have to be approved at the annual meeting to change the property's designation from residential to municipal.

Conceptual plans for an 11,155-square-foot, two-story building at the West Chatham site estimated construction costs at $8.5 million, not including the purchase price of the land. In order to further refine the plans and ensure that a viable building can be built on the site, the town must establish a legal interest in the property, officials say. The town currently has an offer to purchase agreement with property owner Eastward Homes Business Trust that contains a number of contingencies, including restricting municipal use of the land to a senior center; obtaining a two-third approval at the Jan. 4 special town meeting and an affirmative vote at the May annual town meeting for both final construction funds and the zoning change; and approval of a debt exclusion vote at the May annual election.

After last May's rejection of the Middle Road location, selectmen considered two other town-owned sites—the existing senior center location on Stony Hill Road and the Marconi-MCI campus in Chathamport—as well as the 1610 Main St. land. The two town-owned sites were rejected; the current location is not large enough and the Marconi property, like the Middle Road land, was seen as too remote.

Eastward initially asked $900,000 for the West Chatham land; officials negotiated the price down to $750,000, which is slightly less than a December appraisal commissioned by the town. Selectmen initially declined to release that and an earlier appraisal when requested by The Chronicle, but agreed last week to release both documents. The first appraisal, in April 2018, put the property's value at $745,000, while the December appraisal increased the value to $775,000. The appraisal and offer to purchase are posted on the town's website.

Eastward bought the property in 2016 for $437,500. Demolition of an historic home, which was in poor condition, without review by historical officials triggered criticism, although the building was condemned by the building commissioner.

Eastward subdivided the land into two lots in 2017 and also submitted conceptual plans for a commercial building and workforce housing on the site under the town's flexible development bylaw, but the company did not follow through with a formal filing.

In response to questions and concerns about the special town meeting articles, officials put together a list of frequently asked questions that were posted on the town's website (and published in this week's Chronicle).

While selectmen and COA officials support the purchase, the finance committee voted 5-2 not to support it over concerns about the topography of the lot—which slopes sharply to the rear—and parking. While preliminary designs showed the property could accommodate about 55 spaces, more than 80 are expected to be needed for some events. Officials have discussed obtaining agreements with the nearby Ocean State Job lot or other neighboring commercial property to use private parking during events, selectmen last week suggested that COA buses could be used to shuttle people to the senior center from the parking lot at the annex on George Ryder Road.

“I think that's a very viable solution for the overflow parking situation,” said board member Cory Metters.

The fincom voted to support the $130,000 feasibility study.

More than half of the town's residents are over 60, according to the 2015 needs assessment, and the number is expected to increase over the next 15 years. Of the 3,472 residents over 60, 1,452, or 41 percent percent, used COA services and programs during fiscal 2019, said COA chair Barbara Segall. “It's probably higher,” she said.

“We have to move ahead” on a new senior center, she said.

Resident Anne Timpson said the FAQs “leave so many questions unanswered and introduce information that appears to conflict with what has been presented up to this date.” She also questioned the timing of the special town meeting, which she said “inhibits residents who are historically traveling in the winter.”

“This is too big to disenfranchise those who are footing the bill,” she said.

Timpson also criticized as “disingenuous” a postcard that the Friends of the Council On Aging mailed to residents urging a positive vote on the articles. The card shows the current senior center after it had been power washed in preparation for painting. The slightly out of focus photo makes the existing senior center appear to be in poor condition.

Former Selectman David Whitcomb said he believed the West Chatham land is the best site for a new senior center, and the feasibility study funding will produce an accurate picture of what a facility would look like at the location.

“Then we can vote [in May] with complete knowledge of what we're voting for,” he said.

Voters at Saturday's meeting will also be asked to appropriate $3,981 in free cash to pay prior year bills; $285,600 in adjustments to current year appropriations; and $59,900 to fund a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Chatham Municipal Employees Association, which covers 63 staff positions. The agreement runs through June 30, 2021.

The state certified the town's free cash at $5,277,749 in November, according to Finance Director Alix Heilala.