The road to Chatham's special town meeting this Saturday has been a particularly long and tortured one. The main item on the agenda—authorizing selectmen to purchase land in West Chatham for a new senior center—was the result of a process that goes back years and includes the rejection at last May's annual town meeting of $6.6 million to build a new senior center on town-owned land on Middle Road. The new site is not without its problems and its opponents, but it's important to remember that Saturday's vote is not the final word in the matter.
We agree there's a need for a new senior center. The current facility on Stony Hill Road was jury rigged from the beginning and certainly won't be able to keep up with the council on aging's growing program needs as the town's population continues to age. Conceptual plans developed for a new facility based on a COA needs assessment do not seem overly ambitious. The only real question has been where to put it.
Without rehashing and second guessing the work that went into choosing the 1610 Main St. location, we agree that it's not a perfect site. The topography drops off considerably to the rear, requiring significant site work, including expensive retaining walls, and a rear entrance off a sloping driveway is certainly not optimal for seniors. There seems to be adequate parking to meet the senior center's everyday needs, but not enough to accommodating special events, a significant concern. On the plus side, it's certainly not stuck out in the middle of the woods, like Middle Road, and would accommodate a facility that would meet the COA's anticipated needs for many years.
Those issues aside, the chief objections we've heard focus on the cost and the current owner. Eastward Homes Business Trust has agreed to a $750,000 selling price, significantly more than $437,500 paid for the land in 2016, which then contained a dilapidated house. Town officials negotiated the price down from Eastward owner William Marsh's initial $900,000 asking price, and the current figure is slightly less than the $775,000 estimate in a December appraisal released by the town last week. The price, to us, doesn't seem outlandish. But Marsh himself is a controversial figure and has shown little regard for the community in his many development projects, opting, for instance, to pay a fee rather than build an affordable home in his 13-lot Hunter's Rise subdivision in West Chatham, and seemingly maximizing the development potential of every project he's undertaken (witness the three huge houses on tiny lots built last year by Eastward off Crowell Road). There are many who will oppose purchase of the senior center site solely because it is owned by Marsh.
It may be a distasteful deal for some, but it seems to be the best deal available right now, and we support approval of article 4 to purchase the property, which requires a two-thirds majority. The chief reason for our backing is article 5, a $130,000 appropriation for a feasibility study, conceptual design and cost estimate for a senior center at the West Chatham location. Although sketch plans were done, this study will get into the detail of how a senior center fits on the land, including final construction figures. That information is critical and will lead to a request for construction funds at the May annual town meeting. But here's the rub: article 4 in next Saturday's meeting—and an offer to purchase signed by selectmen in December—specifies that selectmen will only follow through on the purchase if those funds pass at the annual town meeting and a subsequent debt exclusion election.
So Saturday's vote is not the last word. Voters will have another bite at the senior center. Because of that, we recommend passage of both articles 4 and 5.