School Committee Won't Give Up Land For Senior Center

By: Tim Wood

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 – The Monomoy Regional School Committee voted unanimously Thursday not to give up middle school land along Stepping Stones Road where some residents want to see a senior center built.

A group of residents petitioned for a special town meeting, scheduled for Saturday, March 7, to seek money for a feasibility study of the two-acre parcel, which lies between the road and the Old Colony Bike Trail, as an alternative to land at 1610 Main St. which is currently being studied as a senior center site. While the Stepping Stones Road land is owned by the town, it is part of the Monomoy Middle School campus and controlled by the Monomoy Regional School District under a 40-year lease. In order for it to be turned back to the town, the land must be declared surplus and no longer needed for school purposes by the school committee.

Thursday night the committee declined to do so. Members said they were concerned that an increase in traffic a senior center would bring could pose safety problems for students, and they were reluctant to give up land not knowing if it may be needed in the future by the school department.

“I feel this is ill-advised and I will not support it,” said Chatham school committee member Joseph Auciello.

Despite the school committee vote, the petitioners intend to continue their efforts. Petitioner Robert Hessler noted that the finance committee voted Thursday to support the special town meeting article.

“We're going to move ahead and look forward to the special town meeting,” he said Friday.

Earlier this week the board of selectmen voted unanimously to oppose the special town meeting article and reaffirmed their support for 1610 Main St. A report by a working group conducting the feasibility study of the West Chatham property showed that the land could accommodate a 10,950-square-foot, two-story senior center, although environmental studies and cost estimates have yet to be completed. At a Jan. 4 special town meeting, voters agreed to accept developer William Marsh's donation of the 1.3-acre parcel and appropriated $130,000 for the feasibility study.

Petitioners will ask for the same amount at the March 7 special town meeting, although they say the Stepping Stones Road land has fewer issues, and with designs for a senior center completed, the cost of a study of that land will be less. Neighbors and school committee members have raised traffic issues, and proponents say the only way to determine if those concerns are valid is through a study.

Petitioner David Oppenheim asked the school committee Thursday to hold off on a vote until a feasibility study is conducted, assuming the March 7 special town meeting article passes. The committee should not act without being fully informed, he said.

“We'll all be better off if we have the facts, not speculation,” he said.

But school committee members indicated a feasibility study would not change their position.

“A feasibility study isn't going to make a difference for us at this point,” said Chairman Jacquelyn Zibrat Long, one of Chatham's representatives on the panel. “It's the property itself.”

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.

Citing the 512 signatures collected by the petitioners, Hessler said selectmen and the school committee need to recognize that there is support in the community for the Stepping Stones Road site. Townspeople deserve a choice, he said, and precluding that sends the wrong message to seniors, taxpayers and students.

The petitioners have indicated that no matter what the outcome of the March 7 vote, they plan to submit an article to the annual town meeting to ensure that voters have an alternative to the 1610 Main St. site, which is expected to be on the warrant for construction funding. Selectmen have expressed concern that having two potential senior center sites on the warrant could lead to neither getting the two-thirds necessary to pass.

The council on aging board is scheduled to vote on whether or not to support the March 7 special town meeting article on Monday.