Special Town Meeting Will Be Called For Alternative Senior Center Site

By: Tim Wood

Sketch plan showing possible location of a senior center on land along Stepping Stones Road.

CHATHAM – A group of residents unhappy about the choice of land in West Chatham as the location for a new senior center have filed a petition to call a special town meeting to instead investigate an alternative site on Stepping Stones Road.

Town Clerk Julie Smith certified the necessary 200 signatures to call a special town meeting. Under state law, the board of selectmen must call a meeting within 45 days of Jan. 30.

The group is focused on a 1.599-acre parcel of town-owned land along Stepping Stones Road currently leased to the Monomoy Regional School District. The land is between the road and the Old Colony Rail Trail, which loops away from Stepping Stones Road near a driveway into the school. A plan prepared for the group shows the outline of a one-story senior center—the same outline used to show how a senior center would fit on land off Middle Road, which voters rejected in May—fitting within the now-wooded area along with 60 parking spaces.

The group's petition town meeting article seeks the appropriation of an unspecified amount of money for a “comprehensive study of the feasibility” of locating a senior center on the land, including conceptual designs and cost estimates.

The article also authorizes selectmen to enter into negotiations with the Monomoy Regional School District regarding use of the land. Land leased by the school department can be turned back to the town if it is declared surplus by the school committee, according to the 2012 lease.

On Jan. 4, voters at a special town meeting agreed to accept the gift of land at 1610 and 0 Main St. from William Marsh for a senior center. After the proposed $6.6 million senior center on Middle Road was defeated in May, selectmen identified the 1.3-acre parcel West Chatham land as the best location for a new facility for the council on aging. Voters also approved $130,000 for a feasibility study, designs and cost estimates, a process that has begun.

Members of the group that filed the petition say the West Chatham land has significant site constraints, including topographical issues which will necessitate a two-story facility, robust retaining walls and numerous permit requirements, including wetlands review and a zoning change. It is at best a compromise, “like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” said group member Robert Hessler. The Stepping Stones Road land, in comparison, is relatively flat and has no zoning or wetland issues.

“The Stepping Stones Road property is definitely a better site for the COA,” he said. Along with accommodating a senior center and parking, the location is adjacent to tennis and pickleball courts as well as overflow parking. The West Chatham location would have to rely on buses or parking at private properties to accommodate overflow during major events. Preliminary cost estimates for a senior center there hovered north of $8 million.

If the measure is approved by voters, it will be up to selectmen to decide if both feasibility studies should go forward concurrently, he said. The group anticipates the work can be done in time for the May annual town meeting.

Although only 200 signatures are required to call a special town meeting, the group's petition included more than 500 signatures, which Hessler said is a “clear message” that there is widespread support for the proposal.

Along with Hessler, the concerned citizens for an alternative COA site include David Oppenheim, Gloria Freeman, Elaine Gibbs, Don and Debbie Aikman, Oonie Burley and Fred Crimins.

Watch for an update to this story here and in the print edition Thursday.