Stepping Stones Road COA Feasibility Funds OK'd; Selectmen Reluctantly Move Ahead With Study

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: council on aging

Voters hold up their tickets at Saturday’s special town meeting.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM — By a solid margin, voters at Saturday’s special town meeting approved spending $75,000 for a feasibility study for a new council on aging building on Stepping Stones Road.

But because the land is under the control of the Monomoy Regional School Committee, which has voted against releasing it back to the town, it remains to be seen if a new senior center could be built on the two-acre parcel.

The vote count was 297 in favor of studying the Stepping Stones Road site, with 143 opposed.

Proponents of the site say it would provide room for a single-story senior center with ample parking and access to the bike path and nearby athletic fields, on land already owned by the town. They argue that the Stepping Stones Road location is a better alternative than 1610 Main St. in West Chatham, which was approved for consideration as a senior center site by voters in January.

This Saturday, town officials had scheduled a public information session to present the draft design of a senior center at 1610 Main St., but the information instead will be presented at Monday's meeting of the board of selectmen, which will be televised live.  Officials will present the results of several pending studies and the latest revisions of the building and grounds designs, and the town’s owners project manager will answer questions and take public comments about the plan. The meeting is a continuation of the process started at the Jan. 4 special town meeting, where voters appropriated $130,000 for designs and cost estimates for the West Chatham site, which will go before voters at the annual town meeting. The West Chatham location has the support of the board of selectmen and the council on aging board of directors.

But last Saturday, a majority of special town meeting voters were focused on the Stepping Stones Road site.

“The council on aging building will be used for 50 years or more,” petitioner Robert Hessler told the crowded session in the middle school gym. “We ought to go forward with it carefully.” Hessler said the feasibility study is needed “to provide the best possible choice for the council on aging, our senior citizens, our taxpayers and the voters of Chatham.”

Resident David Oppenheim said the Stepping Stones Road site has support from a broad coalition of voters because it provides more flexibility for a better senior center design. Building a two-story structure on more cramped land at 1610 Main St. could prove to be significantly more costly, he said. Oppenheim said he was disappointed with the school committee’s “reactive decision” against relinquishing control of the land, which it leases from the town. He said in light of this most recent vote, he is confident the school committee will reconsider its decision “and vote based on knowledge, and not emotion and conjecture.”

With passage of Saturday’s article, selectmen are authorized to begin negotiations with the Monomoy Regional School District to secure use of the two-acre parcel. Town counsel has opined that the vote does not compel selectmen to do so, however.

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said the school committee has already rejected the idea of declaring the Stepping Stones Road land as surplus. Voting to approve the design funds directs selectmen, “who have voted unanimously not to support this site, to go negotiate with a school committee who has also unanimously opposed its use,” Dykens told the special town meeting. In that sense, the vote is “a fool’s errand,” and jeopardizes passage of the 1610 Main St. site in May, he said.

At this week’s regular board meeting, selectmen mulled their next steps. Dykens said the board is “boxed in” because it either spends the $75,000 on what it sees as a wasted effort, or defies the will of special town meeting by not spending it.

“Do we want to have two competing projects on the annual town meeting?” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis asked Monday. “Both could possibly fail and we’re back to square one,” she said.

“The school committee took a position, no surplus property,” and he supports that decision, Selectman Cory Metters said. But were the Stepping Stones Road land to be declared surplus, the town should consider all potential uses for the land. “I think affordable housing has got to be considered for that area,” Metters said.

Several selectmen said that, for voters to consider both locations for a senior center, there must be comparable feasibility studies done for each.

“I don’t believe it’s humanly possible to have that before town meeting,” Dykens said. The annual town meeting warrant closes on March 23.

Resident Frank Messina agreed, and urged selectmen to set the Stepping Stones Road proposal aside for now. “Those of us who supported 1610 Main St. from the beginning deserve an up or down vote,” he said. If it fails at town meeting, selectmen could then spend the $75,000 and revisit the Stepping Stones location.

Selectmen ultimately decided to authorize the town manager to spend up to $75,000 for a feasibility study for Stepping Stones Road, though they were reluctant to do so. Board member Peter Cocolis said he would have to “hold my nose and then vote yes.” Studying the Stepping Stones property may be a waste of money, but it may also be a political necessity.

“If we don’t do this, we’ll have a group of people—and a whole bunch—that will say that we’re not following through in the democratic process,” Cocolis said. “And they’re going to vote against it anyway.”

Metters made a motion to authorize the feasibility study and to ask the Monomoy Regional School Committee to consider reaffirming or reevaluating their position on the land being surplus. His motion failed to earn a second until he removed the school committee provision. When he did so, his motion passed unanimously.