CHATHAM – The historic business district commission's denial of a request to demolish five buildings on the former Monomoy Theatre property was discriminatory and overstepped its authority, the owners of the property claim.
Chatham Productions LLC is asking the board of selectmen to overturn the commission's Nov. 18 decision. In an appeal sent to selectmen Nov. 25, owner Greg Clark wrote that during the hearing, HBDC members repeatedly questioned what would replace the structure. “These remarks made it clear that whatever future use was proposed for the site would sway the HBDC's decision regarding approval for removal of the structures,” he wrote.
In its decision, the HBDC was trying to control what the site will be used for, “usurping the role of the planning board,” Clark wrote.
“What the planned use for the property is should have no bearing over whether the buildings can be demolished under town guidelines,” Clark wrote in the three-page appeal letter. “The board members ignored the lack of historical significance or the physical state of these buildings when voting on the demolition requests.”
By focusing on the property as a whole and not looking at the individual buildings, Clark wrote, the HBDC exceeded its authority. “Refusal to separate the buildings' former use from the property's potential future is a grave overstep of the HBDC's authority,” he wrote. Those issues are for the planning board and the zoning board of appeals to deal with, he added.
The five buildings at 766 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. Clark proposed demolishing were used in conjunction with the Monomoy Theatre's summer theater program, including a residence, costume shop, rehearsal space and scene shop. None are historically significant, he said at the hearing, and all are in poor condition. HBDC members wanted to know what would replace them, he wrote in the appeal letter, and while there are no specific plans to replace any, the property would not be left vacant because the two historic buildings would remain.
The demolition plans did not include two historic structures on the property, the Washington Taylor House and the theater building. In his appeal letter, Clark said use and renovation plans for those buildings have not been finalized. When that happens, the plans will be brought before the HBDC.
Under its guidelines, the HBDC is empowered to refuse to approve demolition or relocation of an historic building is it would be to the detriment of the public interest. In making a decision, the HBDC can consider not only the age and historical and architectural significance of a structure, but also the reason for demolition, what would be put in its place and when that would occur, as well as the effect on surrounding properties and the district.
Chatham Productions bought the 2.7-acre property in September 2019 for $3.65 million. A summer theater for eight decades, focusing on training college theater students, the Monomoy Theatre closed the previous year after health and safety violations in a number of the buildings prompted long-time owners the Steindler family to sell. Clark brought preliminary plans to the HBDC a year ago which called for restoration of the two historic buildings and new construction that included the scene shop but called for removal of the other buildings. The plan also included up to 24 condominiums which required a zoning change. Clark's proposal of an overlay district for the property was turned down at an Oct. 3 special town meeting.
Under the HBDC regulations, the board of selectmen must hear an appeal “promptly,” but no timeframe is specified. As of Tuesday, a hearing date had not been scheduled. If selectmen uphold the decision, the owners can appeal to superior court.