Voters Nix Monomoy Theatre Zoning Proposal

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Town Meeting , Housing and homelessness , Historic preservation

Voters at Saturday's special town meeting unanimously rejected the zoning bylaw amendment.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM — Treating it like an idea straight out of left field – literally – voters gathered at Veterans Field for Saturday’s special town meeting summarily rejected a zoning bylaw change linked to the redevelopment of the Monomoy Theatre property.

Seated in the baseball field facing the outfield, voters could imagine the project that would have created 24 condominium units on the property next door, just behind the scoreboard.

It took voters just 36 minutes to unanimously reject the zoning bylaw amendment. It likely would have taken less time than that, had they not several minutes discussing – and ultimately rejecting – a motion that would have sent the proposal back to the planning board for revision.

Voters were worried about the density and traffic that the project would create, and without any guarantee that a restored theater building would ever operate the way Monomoy Theatre did, the 324 voters present all voted to close the door firmly on the proposal by property owner Greg Clark of Alexandra Properties.

The article sought to establish a Main Street Overlay District for redevelopment of the 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. property, clearing the way for the creation of the condominium units, as well as the restoration of the former Monomoy Theatre and the historic Washington Taylor house.

The defeat of the article seemed all but certain, given previous votes by the planning board, board of selectmen and finance committee against supporting the measure. Clark, who was present at Saturday’s meeting but did not speak, had gathered the 200 signatures necessary to call the meeting so it could not be canceled.

By law, because the article was a zoning bylaw amendment, it cannot be brought back to town meeting for at least two years unless it is substantially revised or wins the support of the majority of the planning board.

After the meeting, resident Frank Messina, who made the motion to refer the zoning bylaw change back to the planning board, said he hoped there was room for compromise on the proposal.

“I moved the article to go back to the planning board because I was hoping the community would recognize that there are a lot of options that [Clark] could do on the property,” he said. Messina, who is also the chairman of the historical commission, sought to have the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His motion was overwhelmingly rejected.

Contacted by email this week, Clark said some kind of development will take place on the property.

“When we purchased the Main Street property in September 2019, we had already reviewed a couple of different site usage options during our due diligence period,” he wrote. “We felt that this proposal, which was unanimously endorsed by the Planning Board and Board of Selectmen in the Spring, included the best combination of uses at the property. The Town Meeting results allow us to entertain some of these other options. We remain committed to the development of this property.”

Absent a successful zoning bylaw amendment, any new project on the parcel would need to meet existing zoning rules, or would need to be exempted from them by a comprehensive permit under Chapter 40B, which is sometimes known as the state’s “anti-snob” zoning act.

But on Saturday, voters were focused on defeating the article. Finance Committee Vice-chair Florence Seldin said her committee unanimously opposed the measure given concerns about the scale and massing of the proposed condominium buildings.

“The committee also noted the absence of detailed operating plans for the proposed Monomoy Theatre, as well as the risk the pandemic might pose to the realization of an operating theater,” she said.

Making a theater reference, resident Bob Hessler invoked the play “The Music Man,” which tells the story of a traveling con man who tries to dupe the citizens of River City. “I’m not by any way suggesting that the developer is a con artist,” Hessler said, but the proposal includes “the illusion” of a reopened Monomoy Theatre without providing any such guarantee. The amended bylaw would result in a large condominium development, he said. “There is no happy ending if this petition is approved.”

Resident David Oppenheim spoke to voters and gestured to the outfield.

“I think it’s ironic that we’re sitting here where we can actually see what will happen if this article is passed,” he said. He described condominium buildings that would loom over the field, which he described as the recreational center of town, anchoring the community center, Monomoy Community Services, fields and playgrounds. The residential units would permanently change the character of this part of town, Oppenheim noted. “And those condominiums will be built whether the theater works or doesn’t work.”