Special Town Meeting To Be Called For Alternative Senior Center Site

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Monomoy Regional Middle School , council on aging

A conceptual plan shows how a senior center could fit on land off Stepping Stones Road near the bike trail. COURTESY ILLUSTRATION

CHATHAM – A special town meeting will be held to consider an alternative site for a new senior center.

A group of residents filed a petition last Thursday to investigate land off Stepping Stones Road that is part of the Monomoy Regional Middle School campus. The wooded 1.599 acres sits between the road and the Old Colony Rail Trail and is not currently being used by the school. Town Clerk Julie Smith certified the necessary 200 signatures to call a special town meeting, and the board of selectmen plans to set a date for the session on Monday. Under the law, the meeting must be held by March 14.

If the group's petition article is approved, it could result in two sites for a new senior center going before voters at the May annual town meeting.

On Jan. 4, voters at a special town meeting agreed to accept a gift of the West Chatham land from William Marsh to a senior center. Voters also approved $130,000 for a feasibility study, designs and cost estimates. A working group of staff and consultants are currently working on that project.

But the group that filed the petition believes the West Chatham property has too many flaws and would be too expensive to develop.

“The Stepping Stones Road property is definitely a better site for the COA,” said group spokesman Robert Hessler, noting that it has fewer complicating factors than the 1.3-acre parcel at 1610 and 0 Main St. that selectmen identified as the best site in town for a new senior center, after a $6.6 million senior center plan on land on Middle Road was rejected at the May annual town meeting. Hessler said the same 10,000-square-foot building proposed for the Middle Road site could fit on the Stepping Stones Road land along with 60 parking spaces.

Selectmen said they'd already considered and rejected the Stepping Stones property, which several members of the board said would be inappropriate for a senior center for several reasons, including its location in a quiet residential neighborhood. They also question the wisdom of removing the land from under the jurisdiction of the Monomoy Regional School District.

Pitting the Stepping Stones Road property against the West Chatham Road land could also result in neither getting the two-thirds vote necessary to move ahead with a new senior center, said Selectman Peter Cocolis. That could mean further delays for seniors, which have been waiting for a new senior center for a decade.

“I'm concerned we won't get any council on aging because we won't get a two-thirds vote,” he said.

The petitioner said the West Chatham land has significant site constraints, including topographical issues which will necessitate a two-story building, an expensive retaining walls and numerous permit requirements, including wetlands review and a zoning change. It is located on the busiest road in town and will be a problem for seniors to access, they said.

It is at best a compromise, “like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” said Hessler. Preliminary cost estimates for a senior center there hovered north of $8 million.

The Stepping Stones Road land, in comparison, on a safe, quiet road, is relatively flat and has no zoning or wetland issues, he said. It is also adjacent to tennis and pickleball courts as well as an overflow parking area. The West Chatham location would have to rely on buses or parking at private properties to accommodate overflow during major events.

Support for investigating the Stepping Stones Road land is demonstrated by the more than 500 signatures the group was able to get in just a few days, Hessler said. Among the signatures are members of the finance committee, zoning board of appeals (on which Hessler serves), bikeways committee and even council on aging board members.

“I think the message is clearly there, that this is what the leaders of the town want, and what the people want,” he said.

Selectman Dean Nicastro was critical of the group bringing up the property now, after the selectmen spent months looking at dozens of potential sites, finally narrowing the choice to the West Chatham land. The Stepping Stones land was among those sites, both he and Cocolis said. It was only after Marsh offered to donate the 1610 Main St. land that the Stepping Stones parcel was brought up, Nicastro said in an email, calling the initiative a “sideshow.”

Hessler, however, said the option was never discussed in public. “There is no video evidence anywhere of any meeting where they considered this,” he said. “I challenge them on their statement that it was considered and rejected.”

Support material from the selectmen's Aug. 5 meeting, at which options for a senior center site were reviewed, includes the Stepping Stones land, but it was never discussed at the session. “My guess is that people just weren't aware how big that piece of land is,” Hessler said.

Nicastro ran through a number of reasons he is opposed to the Stepping Stones site: It will “unreasonably cannibalize” school property; the configuration is not suitable for a senior center; it would disrupt a quiet neighborhood and remove a natural buffer between the street, the bike path and the school's athletic fields; it will introduce traffic onto what is essentially a side street; a cemetery is across the street and it is insensitive to locate a senior center there; and clearing the lot will cause environmental damage and the destruction of trees, which was also a criticism of the Middle Road location. At Monday's selectmen's meeting, Nicastro suggested that the Stepping Stones Road land should be preserved in its natural state, “even if it means imposing a conservation restriction on that property.”

The environmental impact on Stepping Stones would be “far less” than on the Main Street parcel, much of which under the jurisdiction of the conservation commission, Hessler countered. There are no wetlands issued on the Stepping Stones Road property, he added.

The Friends of Trees has proposed planting trees along the nearby cemetery property to screen it from the road, he said. A senior center would not interfere with the school's nearby playing fields, and removal of the small parcel from the 31-acre middle school campus would not impact the educational program, he said.

Under the 2012 lease between the town and the Monomoy School District, the land can be turned back to the town if it is declared surplus by a vote of the regional school committee. Selectman Cory Metters said he had a problem with the land being seen as surplus. “We have no idea the future needs of our school and once the land is gone we remove any future options,” he said in an email. He also said provision for calling a special town meeting was being abused, and he hadn't supported the January meeting. These sort of decisions belong at the annual town meeting, he said. People also need to be aware that it costs about $6,000 to hold a special town meeting, he added.

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 Stepping Stones Road 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.

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

Selectmen Monday agreed to discuss the proposal at their Feb. 24 meeting. Nicastro asked that neighbors, school department officials, members of the council on aging board, the open space committee, conservation commission, Chatham Conservation Foundation, Chatham Friends of Trees and the Alliance for Preservation be invited to the session. The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. to accommodate budget discussions, according to Town Manager Jill Goldsmith.

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.