Should The Town Buy The Monomoy Theatre?

By: Tim Wood

The former Monomoy Theatre at 776 Main St. A petition has been filed for a town meeting article asking voters to endorse the town purchasing the property. FILE PHOTO

Petition Article Asks Voters To Decide

CHATHAM – Voters at the annual town meeting will decide if the town should purchase the former Monomoy Theatre property.

A petition article filed with the town clerk's office Monday would, if approved, authorize the select board to acquire by purchase, gift or eminent domain the land at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. Town Clerk Julie Smith said she certified that the petition contained the 10 signatures of registered voters required to place the article on the May 14 annual town meeting warrant. She forwarded the article to the select board, which must vote to include the measure on the warrant.

The petition was filed by attorney Peter Farber, who said he had no preconception of how the property should be used if purchased by the town. However, he said it should continue to be a “community use” rather than be private development as the current owner is pursuing.

“It's a uniquely settled area,” he said, connected to other municipal properties including the community center and Veterans Field. Although owned privately, the Monomoy Theatre was a unique part of the community, he said. “It would be a shame to lose the community aspect of that land.”

Select board chair Peter Cocolis said he was aware of the petition and questioned whether town purchase would be in the best interest of the community. He also questioned whether a purchase could be negotiated or would end up as an eminent domain taking.

“My first thought was I don't believe the land is for sale, which leads to legal and cost challenges,” he wrote in an email.

The property, which contains 2.7 acres of land stretching from Main Street to Depot Road, was purchased by Chatham Productions LLC for $3.65 million in 2019. For more than 50 years, it was the home of a summer program for college students studying theater, who lived and worked on the campus, mounting eight productions during a 10-week season. Sponsored by Ohio University for many years, it was operating under the auspices of the University of Hartford in 2018 when the owner's unwillingness to address health and safety violations prompted the university to not renew its lease. The Steindler family decided to sell to Newton developer and Chatham summer resident Greg Clark rather than a coalition of theater supporters who had hoped to continue the program.

Clark has said he intends to renovate the historic theater building, parts of which date to 1800, and the adjacent Washington Taylor House, built around 1840. After several plans failed to win support – including town meeting rejection of a theater overlay district for the site – he subdivided the property and is in the process of gaining regulatory board approval to building four single-family homes on the Depot Road side of the property.

COVID put a hold on plans to develop the theater, but Clark said that he still plans to restore the historic buildings using proceeds from the sale of the homes.

“We do intend to do the theater,” Clark said at the Jan. 5 historic business district commission meeting. “We are going to do it the right way so that it can function properly.”

According to Farber's petition, the property, if acquired, shall be used for “general municipal purposes, including without limitation, active and passive recreation, historic preservation, community services, education, advancement of the visual and performing arts, and all manner of related activities.”

He said he doesn't envision the property being used for affordable housing. “I don't think that would be the best use for the land,” he said, but added that one option might be to locate a new senior center there. He said he would like to see the select board appoint a committee to gather public input and determine the best use for the property should the article win approval.

The theater building and Washington Taylor House would have to be restored and could be used for municipal or community purposes, he said, which would entail some cost. The petition article does not contain a dollar figure for the purchase of the land, which the assessing department currently values at $2.5 million.

If the property was purchased for $4 million, it would add 49 cents to the tax rate if the money is raised in one year and not borrowed, Farber said.

Clark is in the process of getting historic business district commission approval for the designs of the four single-family homes. At last week's meeting he said once the home designs are approved, his design team will begin working on preliminary plans for the theater. Victoria Clark of Chatham Productions said it won't look like the operation run by the Monomoy Theatre. All of the ancillary buildings previously used for costumes, scenery, and rehearsal will be demolished to make room for the housing, and all of those functions will be incorporated into a renovated theater building.

“It won't look like it did when it was run by the college,” she said.

Members of the commission, however, balked at approving the first design, saying that the 4,000-square-foot home was “too massive” for the area. The hearing was continued to Jan. 19.

Because the land is zoned commercial, special permits are required from the zoning board of appeals for each of the homes.

“It's now or never,” Farber said of the town pursuing acquisition of the land. “Certainly the current owner is going to proceed very soon with the special permit,” after which the value of the land may change.

Cocolis said if it passes town meeting, which requires a two-thirds vote, the article authorizes the select board to acquire the land, “but the decision to go forward with the acquisition is with the select board.”

The board will begin reviewing town meeting articles in February.

Clark had not responded to emails for comment about the petition by deadline.