CHATHAM –Saturday's special town meeting will be held as scheduled, but there may be no vote on the only article on the warrant.
The owner of the Monomoy Theatre property has requested that the zoning bylaw amendment not be voted on and instead be referred back to the planning board.
After the planning board, board of selectmen and finance committee voted this week not to support the article (see separate story), the probability that it would obtain the two-thirds vote necessary to pass was slim. Clark had gathered the 200 signatures necessary to call the meeting so it cannot be canceled, said Moderator William Litchfield. But by referring the measure back to the planning board, the owners avoid the possibility that it would be defeated, in which case it could not return to town meeting in a similar form without the acquiescence of the planning board.
In a press release Thursday afternoon, Greg Clark of Alexandra Properties said the referral would provide time to work with the planning board to refine language in the bylaw amendment, which sought to establish a Main Street Overlay District for redevelopment of the 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. property. Planning board members expressed a desire to do that at Monday's public hearing, but there wasn't enough time prior to Saturday's meeting.
“We intend to work with town counsel to develop the specific language, which will provide the town of Chatham with the guaranteed return of the theater, since that has been our intention from the inception of the project,” Clark said.
Members of both the planning board and public expressed concern that the overlay district, as proposed, while requiring the restoration of the theater and historic Washington Taylor House, would not mandate that the theater reopen. Tying the return of the theater to the occupancy of 24 proposed condominium units elsewhere on the property was discussed. Alexandra Properties would be willing to adjust the language to “prevent the condominiums from being fully occupied prior to the theater receiving a certificate of occupancy,” Clark said in the press release.
Alexandra Properties bought the 2.7-acre theater property a year ago for $3.65 million. Operated for more than 70 years as a summer theater for college students, Monomoy Theatre's last season was the summer of 2018, after which it closed after it was cited for numerous health and safety violations. Sponsor the University of Hartford declined to renew its lease after the former owner declined to make the necessary upgrades.
The overlay district would allow certain uses, such as multi-family houses and dormitories, that are not allowed in the underlying general business two district. The preliminary plans for the property included the 24 condominiums, restoration of the theater building and Taylor house – both of which are in the process of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, to allow the use of historic tax credits in their restoration – and construction of additional space to house a scene shop and wine bar. There could also be a small number of affordable units on the property, Clark said.
In the press release, Clark said the new owners have been portrayed “by a few vocal citizens” as “the unwelcome big developer with no connection to Chatham, and no knowledge of managing a theater.”
“These attacks are based on nothing more than these solicitors' lack of knowledge,” he said. He and his wife have been homeowners in town for 19 years and summer visitors for 25 years, and their son works in theater. He said he has built live performance theaters and required experience in designing theaters when hiring an architect for this project.
“My years of experience in construction and development offer insight into what it takes for a project of this magnitude and complexity to be built,” Clark said. A stand-alone summer theater is not a profitable business, he said. The intention is to use profits from the sale of the residential units to allow the theater to be debt free, so that visiting performance groups could pay minimal rates and area schools and nonprofit groups could use it rent free.
If Saturday's meeting, slated to begin at 1 p.m. at Veterans Field, draws the necessary quorum of 100 voters – which Litchfield said is likely – someone will have to move that the article be referred to the planning board, he said. A motion could also be made to vote on the article. “It's up to the voters,” he said.
There is, however, no way to avoid holding the session, which costs $6,000 or more.
“I don't think we have to plan on spending all of Saturday afternoon there,” Litchfield said.