Our View: Senior Center Stand-off
Let's call it a senior center stand-off.
Chatham Selectmen are pushing ahead with development of plans for a new senior center at 1610 Main St. Last week, members of a working group convened to conduct a $130,000 feasibility study of the location reported that the land is suitable for a council on aging facility, although there are still some unknowns—particularly environmental and traffic issues. As of yet there are no cost estimates either; those should be available later this month.
But a group of residents who believe that 1.3-acre parcel in West Chatham, is, in their words, “compromised,” have submitted a petition asking selectmen to conduct a similar study on two acres of land off Stepping Stones Road which they feel is a better site for a senior center. That proposal will be the subject of a special town meeting this Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Monomoy Middle School. They contend the land, which is situated between the road and the Old Colony Rail Trail, presents fewer issues than 1610 Main St. and would be less expensive to develop as a COA facility. They want a feasibility study to be able to compare the parcel with the one in West Chatham.
The Stepping Stones Road land is owned by the town but is part of the nearly 32-acre middle school campus and is controlled by the Monomoy Regional School District under a 40-year lease. To release it back to the town, the school committee must vote that it is surplus and no longer needed for educational purposes. Last week the committee declined to do so, voting unanimously to retain the land.
If voters approve Saturday's special town meeting article, selectmen, who have made it clear they support 1610 Main St., are under no compulsion to either conduct a feasibility study or, as the article directs, open negotiations with the school committee on the disposition of the land. Even if they did, there's no reason to believe that school committee members would change their mind. Although they expressed strong reservations about what the addition of traffic from a senior center would mean for the safety of students, the possibility that the land could be needed for educational purposes at some point was also of paramount concern.
Ultimately, voters at the May annual town meeting will decide where they want a new senior center to be located. Selectmen and others are concerned that presenting two possibilities will create a stand-off in which neither gets the two-thirds vote necessary to pass. There is considerable opposition in the community to 1610 Main St.; some of that is the location, along Route 28, some is the difficulty of the site, and some is due to the fact that it is being donated to the town by developer William Marsh. Its passage is not guaranteed, even if presented as the only option. It would be good to have an alternative.
Both sites have benefits and drawbacks. Stepping Stones Road, though probably easier developed than the West Chatham land, is a long, narrow parcel smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Adding traffic from a senior center there would have a much bigger impact than on already busy Route 28. The only way to know for sure is by a feasibility study. We therefore urge voters to support the special town meeting article, but not at the $130,000 level requested by the petitioners. Since the Stepping Stones Road parcel is less problematic, half, or less, of that amount should be sufficient, with most going toward investigating the impact on traffic, the neighborhood and school-related issues.
It will be up to voters in May to resolve the senior center stand-off. The best way to do that is to arm them with information. Then residents—and the school committee—can make an informed decision.