Residents Seek Investigation Of Middle School Land For Senior Center

By: Tim Wood

Topics: council on aging

A group of residents want the town to consider the wooded area between Stepping Stones Road and the bike trail as a site for a new senior center.  The school committee, which controls the land, this week voted not to give it up. GOOGLE MAPS 

CHATHAM – Even as officials begin a study to determine the feasibility of building a new senior center at 1610 Main St. in West Chatham, interest is growing in an alternative location, land along Stepping Stones Road that is now part of the Monomoy Regional Middle School campus.

A few weeks ago, North Chatham resident Fred Crimins asked the board of selectmen for an agenda item to discuss the Stepping Stones Road site. He's gotten plenty of comments from residents who have doubts about the viability of the West Chatham location and want to see an alternate site considered.

“I think it's an ideal location, in my opinion,” Crimins said of a section of the school land adjacent to Stepping Stones Road and within the loop of a section of the Chatham spur of the Old Colony Rail Trail. He's supportive of a new senior center and is concerned that if the 1610 Main St. location is rejected at May's annual town meeting—as the plan for a $6.6 million senior center off Middle Road was turned down last year—construction of a new council on aging facility will be even farther in the future. That is certainly a possibility, he added, since a two-thirds vote will be required, and the special town meeting vote to accept the West Chatham land gift fell short of that.

Another plan should be ready to go should that happen, he said.

At a special town meeting earlier this month, voters agreed to accept the donation of the 1.3-acre parcel at 1610 Main St. from William Marsh for use as a senior center site. A $130,000 appropriation was also approved for a feasibility study to determine if a senior center could be built on the land, which critics say has topographical problems that will make a senior center there prohibitively expensive.

Crimins made his concerns about having an alternative site known at the special town meeting, only to be told that the town doesn't own the property. That turned out to be wrong; the town does own the 31-acre middle school parcel, and leases it to the school district. Select Chair Shareen Davis acknowledged her error, and in a statement at Monday's board meeting, said she would be open to discussing the middle school or other sites only if 1610 Main St. is deemed to be not suitable.

“I would like to allow our staff and the working group the time, resources and due diligence to determine such,” she said. But if a board member wanted to have the discussion now, she would entertain the request, she added. Two board members said they'd like to do so, with Dean Nicastro suggesting that stakeholders such as neighbors, Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter, town staff and various committee chairs be invited. Davis said she'd honor that request but was not sure on the timing of the discussion.

The middle school land was one of dozens of town-owned parcels examined by town staff as possible senior center locations after the Middle Road property was defeated. Three different locations on the land along Stepping Stones Road were included in a site selection appendix given to selectmen, including the tennis and basketball court area and the currently wooded area between Stepping Stones Road and the bike trail. At an Aug. 5 selectmen's meeting where the options were considered, there was no discussion of the middle school land—no one from the public brought it up either, Davis noted—and selectmen narrowed the focus to the existing senior center site on Stony Hill Road, the Marconi property and 1610 Main St. The board ultimately endorsed the 1610 Main St. land.

Crimins said there is about 1.6 acres of land within the wooded area between the road and bike trail, slightly more than the 1610 Main St. property. He believes that a senior center and adequate parking could fit there, without impacting the bike trail, but acknowledged that he doesn't have the technical knowledge to know for certain.

There is more land to the north, beyond the bike trail, which is elevated and includes a ball field. Although he questions how much it is used, Crimins said he understands the feeling of protection for ball fields. Retaining a ball field was one of the main reasons the community center site was rejected as a senior center location.

Currently, the school department has a 40-year lease on the property, but the lease is flexible and has provisions for the school department to turn land it leases back to the town if it is declared surplus and no longer needed for educational purposes. That happened with the Harwich Middle School and when the boundary between that land and the Harwich Elementary School needed to be adjusted, said Carpenter. All it took was a vote of the school committee and the board of selectmen, “and that was pretty much it.”

Carpenter said a senior center next to the school could be a “wonderful opportunity” for interaction between kids and seniors. “I do like the concept of an intergenerational connection. I think having it next to a school is a good thing,” he said. He liked the idea of a senior center on the former water department land between the elementary school playground Old Harbor Road, but that parcel was rejected by officials because it is too small.

But the middle school fields are heavily used by the school's baseball team, popular boys and girls soccer teams and will be used by a new lacrosse program that will begin in the spring, Carpenter said. Like other facilities at the middle school, the fields are more expansive than usual for that grade level because they were built as a high school and are considered one of the “gems” of the facility.

“Our kids enjoy these wonderful fields,” he said. Likewise, the basketball, tennis and pickleball courts, while on school property, are heavily used by the community and are good examples of shared school-town facilities, he said.

“It's rather squishy what is town vs. school there,” he said, adding that the town helps maintain the courts and uses the tennis courts for the summer recreation program. “All of that area is really used by the town and school.”

Those facilities would work nicely in conjunction with a senior center, Crimins said. While there's a perception that the council on aging caters to elderly seniors, many younger, active seniors in the 60-plus range might be more involved with the agency if there were more access to recreational facilities and programs, he said.

Work has begun on the feasibility study of 1610 Main St., according to Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen, with Architect Joel Bargmann of Bargmann Hendrie and Archetype, Inc. and owners project manager Rick Pomroy coordinating the gathering baseline data. But if that process results in substantial cost increases—the Middle Road senior center cost was $6.6 million; the broad cost estimate for 1610 Main St. was north of $8 million—and voters reject it, there needs to be an alternative ready to go, or costs will just continue to escalate, Crimins said. His request to selectmen is simply to talk about that.

He received support from Elaine Gibbs, a frequent critic of the board, who wrote in an email to the board this week that failing to investigate a viable alternative to the West Chatham location was “a huge risk.” Should the May vote fail, “it will result in further delays finding a new site, with construction costs only increasing,” she wrote.

“It shouldn't be an us vs. them,” Crimins said. “It's the townspeople. They're the deciders. Let them decide.”