Town Meeting Accepts Gift Of Senior Center Land

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Town Meeting , council on aging

Teller Bruce Beane counts votes during Saturday's special town meeting in Chatham. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Fate Of West Chatham Facility Depends On May Vote

CHATHAM – Town officials will begin developing designs and cost estimates for a new senior center at 1610 Main St. after voters at Saturday's special town meeting agreed to accept the donation of the 1.3-acre parcel.

The fate of a new senior center will depend on a vote in May on construction funds.

Owner William Marsh's last-minute decision to donate the property, announced Friday, was key to the positive vote. Because the land was being donated, only a majority vote was required. Town officials initially planned to ask voters to buy the land for $750,000, which would have required a two-thirds vote. The 409-228 vote in favor of accepting the donation fell just 1 percent short of the two-thirds margin, according to Town Clerk Julie Smith.

Voters unanimously approved spending $130,000 in free cash for a feasibility study that will develop conceptual designs and cost estimates for a senior center on the West Chatham land.

While acknowledging the generosity of the gift, selectmen and council on aging officials said a new senior center is long overdue, and the West Chatham land is the best site available.

“It has been a long journey that has brought us to this afternoon's town meeting,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. “In my mind, this is the best site currently available on which to place a new council on aging facility,” which will serve as an “invaluable anchor” for the West Chatham village center. He noted that town water and sewer are available at the location, which is along the RTA bus route and within walking distance to shops and restaurants.

“The cultural and economic benefits to having an active senior center in West Chatham makes sense,” said Select Chair Shareen Davis.

After voters rejected spending $6.6 million on a senior center on town-owned land on Middle Road last May, town staff conducted a search of nearly two dozen municipal properties (narrowed from nearly 200) and two private locations submitted in response to a request for proposals. In November selectmen chose the West Chatham land over the Marconi campus in Chathamport and the current senior center site on Stony Hill Road. Conceptual plans for an 11,155-square-foot, two-story building at the West Chatham location estimated construction and site costs of more than $9 million. Removing the $750,000 price of the land drops the projected cost to $8.5 million.

In 2018, Marsh offered the land, which is composed of two lots, to the town for $1 million. Last year, Marsh lowered the price to $900,000, which selectmen negotiated down to $750,000. Over the holidays, however, Marsh, a developer who has lived and worked in town for 50 years, decided to offer the land as a gift to the town in honor of his parents.

“While enjoying Christmas and First Night with my mother and our family I decided that donating the property would be a meaningful way to give back to a town that has given so much to us,” Marsh, owner of Eastward Companies, said in a press release.

Saturday's vote authorizes the selectmen to accept the donation and negotiate an agreement with Marsh “in the public interest.” The measure restricts use of the land to a council on aging facility and makes acquisition of the gift subject to final funding at the May annual town meeting. Both the annual town meeting article and a debt exemption ballot question will require a two-thirds vote.

“This is a no-risk vote,” said Friends of the Council on Aging Board President Judy Hanlon. “There are still contingencies on this donation.”

Seniors, she said, have been waiting for a new senior center for more than a decade while other town facilities have been built. “Surely this donation is a sign” that it's time to move forward, she said.

While the finance committee supports a new senior center, members initially voted against the West Chatham location because of its cost and deficiencies in the site, said Chairman Stephen Daniel. Because the group did not have an opportunity to meet to consider the donation of the land, it did not take a formal position on the article. The committee unanimously supported the study funds, however.

Selectman Dean Nicastro had concerns about the cost of the land as well and had only reluctantly supported the article. “This offer to donate the property addresses my concerns and satisfies my preferences,” he said. The feasibility study will determine if a new senior center can be built at the site, and it would be “foolish, if not downright irresponsible,” not to accept the donation, he said.

Selectman Cory Metters noted that the board had looked at all available town property as well as several private parcels and settled on the West Chatham site as the best one available. “If we can't move forward today, I don't know where we're going to go,” he said.

COA board vice chairman Carol DeCristopher said some of those who began planning a new senior center more than a decade ago have died. The senior population continues to grow, she added. “The building is not only for today but for the future,” she said.

“Let's say to seniors who are here today and in the future that we support you and want to give you something you deserve,” DeCristopher said. Hanlon said a senior was asked at a recent birthday party what she thought of the senior center vote, and the response was, “They're just waiting for us to die.”

Others felt that the site has too many problems—including a steep slope, nearby wetlands and a lack of parking—and that selectmen had not looked at all potential locations. Seth Taylor said Marsh's gift may have “strings” that may not be readily evident.

“We shouldn't be acting without fully understanding what we're talking about,” he said of the property.

The approximately 55 parking spaces shown on the conceptual plan is not enough for major events, and will require that the town have agreements with Job Lot or other businesses in the neighborhood for overflow parking, said Elaine Gibbs. The prospect of seniors walking along Route 28 is “not only dangerous but fraught with legal implications for the town and abutters,” she said. Because of the steep slope at the rear of the property, a significant retaining wall will be required that will be expensive and must pass muster with the conservation commission, she added.

“No amount of time, money and or design work can change the inherent problems of the size, shape topography or location of this site,” she said, adding that a zoning change will also be necessary at the May annual town meeting. “This site missed the mark on everything we've been told by the council and aging and town staff and consultants are important and necessary requirements for a new facility.” It makes no sense to put a senior center on the town's busiest roadway, she added.

George Cooper called the vote a “rush to judgment. We're being asked to take a sow's ear and turn it into a silk purse.” Judy Patterson said she didn't trust town officials to carry out the project given the delays in building the fish pier deck and the “West Chatham roadway nightmare.”

The land didn't meet the standards selectmen had initially set for a new senior center, said Gloria Freeman, and would impact wetlands at the rear of the lot.

“At any cost or no cost, it is highly detrimental to the protection and preservation of natural resources and neither safe nor appropriate for our seniors,” she said. Her request to hold a secret ballot vote was rejected in a voice vote.

All of the concerns will be addressed in the feasibility study, said Hanlon, adding that as part of the West Chatham Roadway Project Americans with Disabilities-compliant sidewalks will be installed in the area.

“Some of those remarks made were scare tactics,” she said. “Seniors crossing in the dark I heard someone say? We're not open at night. Wheelchairs and walkers crossing Route 28? That's never going to happen.” She acknowledged concerned about the slope and the distance of parking from the building, but said “those are questions that can be addressed when the feasibility study is done.”

Removing the $750,000 purchase price of the land will free up that money to help mitigate any site issues, said resident Herb Bassett.

“There are ways to deal with the problems on that property, and if we accept [the gift], we're going to have $750,000 to deal with it,” he said.

Several people called for selectmen to investigate other sites, including a portion of the 31-acre Monomoy Regional Middle School property. But selectmen pointed out while the town owns the land, it is leased to the school district, and any change in that arrangement will require agreement by the school committee, a change in the regional agreement and town meeting votes in both Chatham and Harwich.

“We've waiting a long time,” Hanlon said. “Someone said wait five more years. We don't have five more years. We've been waiting 10 years already. This is long enough.”

Voters also approved $3,981 to cover unpaid bills from the prior year and $59,900 to fund a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Chatham Municipal Employees Association. An addition of $285,600 to the current year's budget was also approved to cover catch basins, sidewalks and repaving. Finance Committee member Florence Seldin said the money was necessary to cover those categories until the next fiscal year begins in July. One of the first projects will be repairs to Stage Harbor Road, where poor drainage created a sink hole last summer.

Dykens noted that the 680 voters who attended the rare Saturday town meeting represented “a heck of a turnout.”