Plan Board Reluctant To Approve Monomoy Theatre Subdivision Without Assurance Of Theater's Preservation

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Development , Historic preservation

The future of the historic Washington Taylor house, left, and the Monomoy Theatre building depends on the ability to develop four single-family homes at the rear of the property, according to the owner. Planning board members were reluctant to accept a subdivision of the property without more information about plans for the theater. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – During a public hearing last week, members of the planning board made clear their reluctance to approve a subdivision for the former Monomoy Theatre property without more information about the future of the theater building and the historic home adjacent to it.

They may have no choice, however.

If the five-lot subdivision plan for 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. meets the requirements set out in the town's zoning bylaw and subdivision regulations, “we don't have a legal reason for denying approval,” said board chair Kathryn Halpern.

The plan divides the property into five lots, one containing the theater and historic Washington Taylor house, the other four reserved for development of single-family homes.

Board members were interested in more details about the subdivision, including the location of single-family homes, drainage information and buffers between the houses and the adjacent Veterans Field. But those details can only be determined after the zoning board of appeals grants approval for single-family homes on the lots, necessary because the property is within the GB2 zoning district, said Greg Clark of Chatham Productions, the owner of the property. And the zoning board can't hear that request until the lots are created by approval of the subdivision by the planning board.

“If zoning doesn't approve it, then we'll probably withdraw the subdivision and go back to something different,” Clark said at the Sept. 27 hearing. “But approval by the planning board tonight doesn't give approval to build anything.”

Clark said he could provide no further information on the future of the theater and Washington Taylor house “because the money from lots two, three and four pay for the larger venture on lot one,” he said.

“And there's a reason why no one else did purchase the property,” he added, because the theater has to be “completely redone” to meet current building, plumbing and electrical codes “at an extensive dollar amount.”

Clark purchased the 2.7-acre property for $3.65 million in September 2019 after a dispute with the University of Hartford, which held the lease on the theater, led the long-time owner to put it on the market. Prior to that, the theater had operated as a summer training ground for college students since the 1950s.

Clark has proposed several plans for the property, all of which involve residential development of the rear portion to finance historic renovation of the theater and house. While he had floated plans for a year-round community theater, the pandemic made the viability of that idea uncertain. A proposal to change the zoning on the property to allow condominiums went down to defeat at town meeting a year ago.

Board member Warren Chane said he understands the need to develop the rear of the property in order to finance restoration of the theater, but while previous proposals include details about that aspect of the project, the subdivision plan does not. The proposal includes removing existing support structures for the theater including the scene shop and outdoor rehearsal stage, he noted.

“For me the loss of these supporting structures raises serious doubts about the ongoing viability of the theater, even if the remaining theater buildings are restored,” he said. He won't vote for the subdivision plan, he added, until there's more information about plans to return the theater to its place “as a historic and cultural jewel” of Chatham.

Chane and board members Robert Wirtshafter, Arthur Spruch and Rodger Griffin wanted more information and had questions about sidewalks in the subdivision, drainage, lighting and buffers between the homes and the baseball field.

“When those lights go on on the baseball field, it's probably going to be like the Griswolds on 'Christmas Vacation,'” Griffin said. “It's going to be bright.”

Wirtshafter felt a cluster development with multifamily units would be better suited to the location as well as conform to the board's vision for village centers.

“If this is what the planning board is limited to, then we are failing to support what this community needs,” he said. However, neither open space cluster development nor multifamily housing is not allowed in the GB2 zoning district, said Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan.

Most of that information can't be determined at this time, said Clark. If the subdivision is approved and the zoning board grants permits for single-family homes on the lots, each will have to return to the planning board for review, he said. The intention is to retain a buffer between the ballfield and homes and the homes and the theater portion of the property.

“We want to allow these homeowners some privacy,” he said, but the exact details can't be determined yet.

“At this stage it's not something we take into consideration,” Halpern said.

She said she admired board members' passion regarding preservation of the theater, but in the subdivision approval process, “there's not a legal and property regulatory way that we can require the owner to preserve the Monomoy Theatre in this plan.”

To deny approval of the plan, “We have to have very clear reasons and they do need to be legally viable reasons,” Halpern said. “In other words, they would need to hold up in land court.”

Board members agreed to continue the hearing until Oct. 25. In the meantime, members will put together a list of information they would like to see added to the plan, and will also visit the site. Letters in response to the plan had not been received from the department of public works, police and natural resources department, all of which are “relevant and important” to the board's consideration, Halpern said.