Update: FinCom Supports Alternate Senior Center Site Article, Selectmen Oppose It

By: Tim Wood

Topics: council on aging

These conceptual elevations show what a two-story senior center at 1610 Main St. might look like.

CHATHAM –The finance committee voted Thursday afternoon to support the March 7 special town meeting article calling for a study of land on Stepping Stones Road as a possible home for a new senior center.

Selectmen on Tuesday voted unanimously against the article (see story below), voicing their support instead for building a senior center at 1610 Main St., land that is being donated to the town by William Marsh.  The finance committee vote was 4-1 with one abstention: chairman Stephen Daniel, a member of the working group conducting a feasibility study on the West Chatham location. 

The proponents of the petition article said they will ask for no more than $130,000 to conduct a feasibility study on the Stepping Stones Road parcel, the same as was appropriated for the feasibility study of the Main Street land at the Jan. 4 special town meeting.  Robert Hessler said he expected the cost would actually be much less, since the site doesn't have as many problematic issues as 1610 Main St. and building plans already done by the town can be used for the Stepping Stones Road land.

Finance committee member Andrew Young said the controversy over the dueling senior center sites reminded him of the "endless debate" over the future of the Main Street School, which eventually became the town's community center.  He said he'd rather spend money now to get the necessary information about the Stepping Stones Road land so that voters at the annual town meeting can make an informed decision between that property and 1610 Main St.

"Right now we're flying blind," he said.

The school committee was scheduled to vote on whether or not to support the article Thursday evening.  Petitioner David Oppenheim said said the group planned to ask the committee not to vote on the matter until more study could be done, including looking at traffic issues, something the school committee has expressed concerns about.

PREVIOUS STORY:

Selectmen are sticking with their choice of land at 1610 Main St. in West Chatham as the site for a new senior center, unanimously rejecting a petition to consider Monomoy Regional Middle School land on Stepping Stones Road for the much-needed facility.

After hearing an update on a feasibility study of the Main Street property Monday, board members were even more convinced that it's the best location for a council on aging building.

“With what we heard tonight, I believe that 1610 is a viable site and I will continue to support it,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. The facility will be a “civic anchor” for West Chatham, he added.

Board members worried that putting two senior center sites before voters at the May annual town meeting could result in neither getting the two-thirds majority needed to appropriate construction funds. They also said that the Stepping Stones Road petitioners should have approached the regional school committee first. While the town owns the property, which is part of the middle school campus, the school department leases the land. It can be turned back to the town if the school committee votes to declare it surplus, and selectmen vote to accept the land.

The Stepping Stones Road proposal will go before voters at a special town meeting Saturday, March 7. The petitioners said Monday they will request $130,000—the same amount appropriated in January for the feasibility study of 1610 Main St.—so that voters at the annual town meeting can have an “apples to apples” comparison of the two properties when they decide where to build a new senior center.

The Stepping Stones Road proponents were disappointed but not surprised by the board's vote Monday, said petitioner Robert Hessler, and will present their case to voters on March 7.

“We are going to move forward,” he said. “We are not deterred.”

While there's widespread support for a new senior center, its location has been both controversial and polarizing. Saying it was too isolated, voters last May rejected building a single-story $6.6 million senior center in land on Middle Road. Selectmen then reviewed numerous possible locations before settling on the 1610 Main St. parcel, which its owner, William March of Eastward Companies, agreed to donate to the town, but only if it is used for construction of a senior center. Voters accepted the gift and appropriated $130,000 for a feasibility study at the Jan. 4 special town meeting.

Many saw the West Chatham site as problematic due to its topography and environmental issues, as well as the location along the town's busiest roadway. A group of residents saw the Stepping Stones Road land, about two acres sandwiched between the roadway and the bike trail, as a better location with fewer issues. They collected more than 500 signatures to force a special town meeting to consider the location as an alternative to the 1610 Main St. parcel.

On Monday, selectmen essentially heard dueling proposals, with a working group convened by Town Manager Jill Goldsmith presenting refined the site layout and building design for the West Chatham property the Stepping Stones Road petitioners making their case.

Owners Project Manager Rick Pomroy said many of the objections to the 1610 Main St. site have been eliminated, including concerns about a change in grade along the entrance to the facility. The grade of the parking area will be relatively flat, he said, and the two-story building was rotated on the site so that the main entrance faces west. The massing of the structure was reduced to be more in keeping with the neighborhood, he added. An outdoor patio was incorporated as well as a link to the adjacent Captain Harding town-owned conservation area. Fifty-four parking spaces can be accommodated on the site.

The project will still require a retaining wall at the rear. “That is unavoidable,” Pomroy said. But it will not be as large as originally thought, which will cut back on site costs.

The project remains within the 100-foot wetlands buffer and will require review by the conservation commission, as well as the town's historic business district commission. There are Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program issues, including rare pond-front vegetation that has to be protected, and a traffic study has not yet been completed. An environmental site assessment is also being done to determine if there are any pollution issues associated with a 1990s airplane crash on the property.

The 10,965-square-foot building, slightly smaller than previously proposed, will meet the council on aging's program requirements and include space for future expansion, such as the addition of an adult day care program, Pomroy said.

Cost estimates have just gotten underway, he said. At the Jan. 4 special town meeting, the facility was projected to cost around $8 million. He said a public forum on the plans is being considered for March 14, with a final presentation to the board of selectmen slated for March 16 or 23. Pomroy said he saw no problem having final plans and cost estimates ready for the May 11 annual town meeting.

There's no question that the 1.3-acre parcel is viable for a senior center, Pomroy said. “That was what everything hinged upon,” he said.

Gloria Freeman, one of the Stepping Stones Road petitioners, said it's premature to declare the site viable. The latest plans make compromises “so that the property works,” she said. Pomroy rejected that. “I will not agree that we have compromised here,” he said.

David Burns, president of the West Chatham Village Association, said the plans are like “putting a square peg in a round hole.” Some 18,000 vehicles travel the roadway during the summer and the traffic poses a hazard for seniors, who are “sometimes not the best drivers,” he said.

(At Thursday's finance committee meeting, acting chairman Florence Seldin took exception to comments like that, saying, "The idea that seniors cannot drive on Route 28 is absolutely ludicrous.")

The Stepping Stones Road proposal was more bare-bones than the 1610 Main St. plans, Hessler said, because the petitioners were working without funds or access to the property. But the senior center building proposed for the Middle Road land would fit on the parcel, which petitioner David Oppenheim said is nearly 2.2 acres, not the 1.5 acres the group initially believed. The site is relatively flat and, with 60 parking spaces, leaves more than one acre as open space, he said.

“I would suggest this is a much safer place for people to go in and out of,” Oppenheim said. “Route 28 is the most traveled road in town on a year-round basis. This is a much quieter area.” A single-story building would be less costly than a two-story structure, added petitioner Elaine Gibbs, although the two-story building proposed for West Chatham could also fit on the Stepping Stones Road site.

The group will be asked town meeting to appropriate $130,000, the same as was allocated to the 1610 Main St. study, Hessler said, although because there are fewer issues with the land—no conservation or zoning concerns, for example—the investigation should cost less.

“The reason for that is we want to compare apples to apples,” he said. “If they have a traffic study, we want a traffic study. We want to address all of the concerns and have all of the answers.”

Stepping Stone Road resident Mike DeAngelis said the street is not as quiet as the petitioners believe; it is used as a cut-through from Old Queen Anne Road, and in the summer, traffic is “nonstop.”

“It's a safety concern,” he said. It takes him five minutes to get out of his driveway in the off-season, he added. “In the summer, I might as well hike through the woods.” A study of the property has to be “soup to nuts,” he said. “It can't be half-assed.”

Parents are “disturbed” about the land being separated from the school property, said Tracy Shields. Some parents drop off and pick up students at the nearby parking area by the basketball courts, and there are cumbersome traffic issues due to the bike trail crossing the road in two places. The town is trying to encourage young families to stay in town, and taking this land from the school “sends the wrong message,” she said.

Brett Tolley, a member, like Shields, of the Chatham 365 Task Force, had similar concerns. He attended the school and explored the land while growing up in town, and he wants his young son to have the same opportunity. If the land is to be developed, it should be done “in context of how it can be used for young families,” he said.

Petitioner Debbie Aikman said the 31-acre middle school land is far more than most middle schools in the state have. “Certainly two acres could be spared for a senior center without impacting the educational needs of our students,” she said.

Freeman said the petitioners want the best possible senior center. “A feasibility study will answer questions and provide information for an informed vote at the May town meeting,” she said. If the 1610 Main St. parcel fails to get the necessary two-thirds vote and there is no alternative, “the council on aging will have nothing and will have to begin again. That should not be allowed to happen.”

Competing senior center proposals at town meeting was a concern of selectmen as well. Peter Cocolis said neither proposal may be the necessary two-thirds vote. “I have a real concern about us losing everything,” he said. While the Stepping Stones Road proposal has some positives, he believed it would negatively impact the residential neighborhood.

Dykens said he felt concerns about traffic on Route 28 were being “overstated.” Seniors use the Oppenheim Medical Center and post office across the street with no problems. “To state that the elderly won't be able to navigate there is very specious. I don't buy that argument one iota.”

By going to town meeting before the school committee, which controls the property, is “putting the cart before the horse,” he said.

“You've got to do your homework with the schools,” he said. “You've set them up to be the decision makers. If the schools say this isn't going to fly, it isn't going to fly.”

Dean Nicastro said the proposal is unhelpful and could endanger a positive vote for a senior center.

“I do not believe this is the right location for a senior center and I will oppose this article,” he said.

The petitioners decided to go to the selectmen first, Hessler said, because the board was more available, and a meeting with the school committee was to follow when it could be arranged. That meeting will happen Thursday evening at Monomoy Regional High School, when representatives of the petitioners will discuss the proposal. The school committee had preliminary discussions about the proposal two weeks ago during which members expressed concerns about conflicts with school activities as well as the possibility that the school could need the property in the future. According to the meeting's agenda, the school committee will vote Thursday whether or not to support the citizens' petition.

Hessler said that even if the special town meeting article passes, selectmen are under no obligation to expend the money or conduct a study of the Stepping Stones Road land. With or without the study, the petitioners will bring their proposal to the annual town meeting so that voters have options for a senior center site, he said. Only 10 signatures are required to place an article on the annual warrant.

The council on aging board is scheduled to meet Monday to vote on the special town meeting article.