Selectmen Call Oct. 3 Special Town Meeting, Despite COVID-19 Concerns

By: Alan Pollock

The Monomoy Theatre. FILE PHOTO 

CHATHAM Selectmen have reluctantly called a special town meeting for Oct. 3 at 1 p.m. at Veterans Field, despite their concerns about holding a large public gathering during the pandemic. Required by law because it was forced by petition, the meeting will ask voters to consider creating a Main Street Theater Overlay District that will allow the redevelopment and restoration of the historic Monomoy Theatre.

Board members said they support the proposal by Newton-based Alexandra Properties to restore the theater and create badly-needed housing units, but they are disappointed that the developer forced a special town meeting when selectmen twice declined to do so on their own, citing public health concerns.

Selectman Dean Nicastro said he is “miffed” at the petition “because this board made a conscious decision not to hold a special town meeting based on considerations of the public health.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Town Moderator William Litchfield said he finds it “rather astounding” that a special town meeting is being called when even small selectmen’s meetings are being held virtually.

The board considered asking the petitioner to cover some or all of the anticipated $11,000 cost of holding the meeting, and town counsel said the petitioner was free to make a donation for that purpose, as long as there was no appearance of “quid pro quo” with the town. Board members ultimately rejected that idea, worried that accepting such a donation would create the appearance of impropriety.

Greg Clark of Newton-based Alexandra Properties has said that waiting until the spring annual town meeting to put the zoning change, which requires a two-thirds vote, before town meeting, would delay his proposed project by a year or more. The theater has already been dark for two summers, and he said he wants to start renovation and restoration work on the building and the adjacent historic Washington Taylor House as soon as possible.

Drive-through signature collections were held at the theater property on two days, and petitions were also available at a few Main Street businesses in order to collect the 200 signatures necessary to force selectmen to call the meeting. The signatures were turned in to the town clerk and certified last Thursday.

Clark's proposal includes renovating and restoring the two historic buildings and building additions for housing for theater students, updated backstage areas and a wine bar. Up to 24 units of housing for residents over 55 would be constructed toward the Depot Road side of the property.

The board voted unanimously to call the meeting for Saturday Oct. 3 at 1 p.m., outside at Veterans Field, with rain dates of Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. or Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 5 p.m. The board referred the overlay district proposal to the planning board to hold a required public hearing and voted to close the warrant in one week, on Sept. 15.

In the interest of keeping the special town meeting as brief as possible, the board voted against including any other articles on the warrant. Other petitioned articles deferred from the annual town meeting will be considered by voters at the next annual town meeting.