Selectmen: Stepping Stones COA Site Doesn’t Deliver

By: Alan Pollock

A rendering of a new senior center as viewed from Stepping Stones Road. COURTESY BH+A

CHATHAM Though touted as a cheaper and better senior center alternative to 1610 Main St., a site on Stepping Stones Road just doesn’t deliver the goods. That was the message from selectmen this week, who voted not to support the proposal whenever it comes up for a vote.

The senior center project working group presented its analysis of the Stepping Stones site Monday, completing a $75,000 feasibility study authorized by special town meeting. While proponents favored a single story building for ease of access, the working group concluded that topographical considerations and parking limitations made such a design prohibitively expensive.

The group instead studied the feasibility of building a two-story senior center, the identical design proposed for 1610 Main St., and concluded that the Stepping Stones Road project would still be about $243,000 more expensive. The reason, Owners’ Project Manager Rick Pomroy told selectmen Monday, is that the land at Stepping Stones is slightly larger and requires more clearing, leveling and landscaping than the primary site in West Chatham. The cost estimate was based on feasibility study documents, not detailed designs.

Supporters of the Stepping Stones Road location say it will have less noise and traffic than 1610 Main St. because it is located in a residential neighborhood. As a petition article, it is assured a place on an upcoming special town meeting warrant, but the proposal faces long odds. The land is under control of the Monomoy Regional School District, which has declined to declare it surplus. Town counsel has opined that, because the land was initially taken by imminent domain for the purpose of building a school, it could not be used for another purpose without approval from the board of selectmen, and the current board strongly supports the West Chatham option. The board would also have to authorize a ballot question for the required Proposition 2½ debt exclusion vote, which it is unlikely to do.

“I think it’s a dead issue, and I think it’s time to move on,” Selectman Dean Nicastro said. The Stepping Stones Road site has been rejected by the council on aging board, and won’t provide cost savings or other benefits, he said. Nicastro said he stands by his previous assertion that the proposal was an “unhelpful diversion” from the objective of building a new senior center at 1610 Main St.

“I don’t think this proposal ever should’ve seen the light of day,” he said.

Selectman Cory Metters said the article would require another big municipal project in a neighborhood that already saw a large area of trees removed for the nearby Union Cemetery expansion. Selectman Jeffrey Dykens agreed.

“Why would we raze woodlands in an area that’s natural, put a big building on it, when we have a site that’s already razed that’s been donated?” he asked. Without providing any cost savings or other advantages, the Stepping Stones Road site is a poor choice, Dykens said.

Board Chairman Shareen Davis echoed that sentiment, saying the West Chatham site provides easy access to public transportation, shopping and restaurants.

“Do we want to change a neighborhood, or do we want to enhance a village center?” she asked.

Stepping Stones petitioner Fred Crimins said the location is safer and senior citizens will enjoy the more rural surroundings.

“I believe this site remains a very viable site,” he said. Ultimately, voters will choose which location is best for a senior center. “It will boil down to that. I have faith in the citizens of the town that they will make the right choice.”

Board member Peter Cocolis praised the project team for its even-handed analysis of the proposal. “I think they tried very, very hard to be an honest broker for us,” he said. As for the Stepping Stones Road location, “yeah, it’s in a rural area,” Cocolis said. “And it’s inappropriate for that area.”

Stepping Stones site supporter Elaine Gibbs said the location will support a better quality of life for those who use the council on aging, who are increasingly younger and require opportunities for outdoor activities. “This is a far superior location for our seniors,” she said.

Resident Rick Leavitt said a new senior center would be detrimental to the Stepping Stones neighborhood and doesn’t provide the benefits promised by proponents.

“They have had a fair shake at making their case,” he said. It is time for all voters to get behind a senior center at 1610 Main St, he argued.

It remains unclear when such a vote will happen, however. Though both articles remain on the warrant for the June 22 annual town meeting, action on those articles is expected to be postponed until a yet-to-be-scheduled special town meeting in the late summer or fall.

The study group concluded a senior center at 1610 Main St. will cost $8.27 million. At a January town meeting, voters agreed to accept William Marsh's donation of the land.