CHATHAM – Selectmen set Saturday, March 7 as the date for a special town meeting to address a petition to consider property off Stepping Stones Road as a possible location for a new senior center.
The board has yet to take a position on the proposal, submitted by a group of residents who say the site at 1610 Main St. in West Chatham currently being studied as a senior center location will be too expensive to develop and won't serve the needs of the town's seniors. A discussion of the measure is scheduled for the board's Feb. 24 meeting; at the same session, the working group conducting a feasibility study of the West Chatham land will deliver a progress report.
The petitioners say using 1.599 acres of land off Stepping Stones Road that is part of the Monomoy Regional Middle School property as a senior center has numerous advantages over the West Chatham land. It doesn't have the topographical challenges of the Main Street property, it is already zoned municipal, it is not along a busy street, is close to downtown and its use would not impact the school's nearby playing fields, they say. The Monomoy School District leases the land, which lies between the road and a loop in the Old Colony Rail Trail. For it to revert to town use, the school committee must vote to declare it surplus. The committee was scheduled to begin that discussion at its meeting Tuesday night.
On Monday, the petitioners met with the council on aging board of directors to review the proposal. No position was taken by the COA board, which will meet again March 2, after the Feb. 24 discussion, to consider its stance on the proposal. It was clear, however, that the overriding concern of members was that if the two sites go up against each other in the May annual town meeting, neither may get the two-thirds support necessary to move forward with a new senior center.
“That's my greatest fear,” said COA Chair Barbara Segall.
“We need a council on aging building in Chatham that can adequately serve not only the population now but the upcoming seniors,” said COA member Carole DeCristopher. “Whatever it takes to get that done is what we should be doing. Having a divisive attitude is going to kill the project.” The petition, which collected 511 signatures, did succeed in making a lot of people aware of the senior center situation, Segall added.
Plans for a new senior center have been in the works to varying degrees for more than a decade. Following a feasibility study to determine future facility needs, a nearly 11,000-square-foot was designed and selectmen choose a town-owned site off Middle Road. But the $6.6 million proposal was turned down at last year's annual town meeting; voters said the location was too remote.
Last summer, town staff reviewed dozens of town-owned and several private parcels—including the middle school land—before presenting selectmen with three options. Selectmen chose the 1610 Main St. property, owned by developer William Marsh, and were prepared to ask voters to buy the land for $750,000 at a special town meeting in January. Marsh instead offered to donate the property to the town, and voters accepted, although the vote tally fell just short of the two-thirds threshold that would have been necessary to appropriate and buy the land.
But the topography of the West Chatham land will require a two-story building and a retaining wall, which pushed the price above $8 million. Robert Hessler, who represents the petitioners, said the Stepping Stones land can easily be graded flat and a single-story building, the same plan proposed for the Middle Road land, could be built there at substantially less cost.
“Voters will decide which of the two is better for seniors, the town and the council on aging,” he said at Monday's COA meeting. “I think the numbers are stacked in our favor, but that's my opinion.”
It will be up to the board of selectmen whether both studies proceed concurrently. Selectman Dean Nicastro said the special town meeting article, if approved, will not be binding on selectmen; he called the proposal an “unhelpful diversion from getting a senior center in May.” If the board ignores a positive vote, Hessler said, the group will submit another petition to place their proposal on the annual town meeting warrant in May.
COA members were also concerned about having space available on whichever property is chosen to add a senior day care facility at some point in the future. It's questionable if the 1610 Main St. property has that space, but Hessler said the Stepping Stones Road property could accommodate expansion.
Selectmen scheduled a meeting for today (Thursday) to close the warrant for the special town meeting. The board was going to close the warrant at Monday's meeting, but the petitioners requested that an explanation be included with their article, and what they submitted was unacceptable to the board.
“I'd like to see something that's a little more neutral,” said Nicastro. The petitioners agreed to submit revised language Wednesday.
Board members also questions whether the motion for the article will request a specific amount of money. Hessler had said at the COA meeting that the group has already paid for a site plan, but he told selectmen that group would like $130,000, the same as appropriated in January for the feasibility study of 1610 Main St., so that the two studies could be commensurate.
“I think we'll spend significant less than that,” he said.
Selectmen also decided to set the time for the March 7 meeting at 3 p.m. Nicastro said at the Jan. 4 special town meeting, which was held at 1 p.m., he noticed a lack of younger people. “Saturday can be a difficult day because of sports and other activities,” he noted.
Last week, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith signed a land donation agreement with Marsh which stipulates that the 1610 Main St. land is being given only for use as a senior center. The deal is contingent on an affirmative vote at town meeting, approval of a zoning amendment to change the property's designation to municipal, and a subsequent debt exclusion election.