Senior Center Going Back Before Voters In Fall Special Town Meeting

By: Alan Pollock

A rendering of the proposed Center for Active Living at 1610 Main St., West Chatham. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Saying they remain convinced that 1610 Main St. is the best possible spot for a new council on aging facility despite the proposal’s failure by just one vote at the May 16 annual town meeting, the select board Tuesday called a special town meeting in September to revisit the vote.

For supporters of the $10.6 million project, it’s another chance to win the two-thirds majority needed to authorize construction of the proposed senior center, now called the center for active living. For opponents, it’s further proof that the select board is ignoring the will of town meeting, which has now failed to pass the proposal twice. And for both sides, the move means a renewed push to get out the vote once again.

Following a lengthy discussion Tuesday, the select board voted to convene a special town meeting on a yet-to-be-specified date in September to reconsider the senior center vote and related articles, as well as a companion proposal to convert the existing center on Stony Hill Road to affordable housing. If the articles pass, the project would go forward, since the measure already passed muster with voters at the annual town election on May 11.

The select board rejected a proposal by resident Ann Ryan to convene a task force to open a new investigation into potential senior center locations, designs and costs. Ryan had argued that the task force would provide “at least one more opportunity for some creative solutions to find a resolution that will leave most people on both sides of this feeling as if we’ve done something really positive for the town.”

“I believe that every conceivable location for a new facility has been studied,” board member Dean Nicastro said. Every aspect of the proposal has been studied in detail since a needs assessment was carried out by the University of Massachusetts back in 2015 and 2016, he noted. The size and design were also discussed at length and revised repeatedly, board member Shareen Davis said.

“This, going forward, is only going to get more expensive with time,” she said.

“What more can we do?” said council on aging vice chair Barbara Segall, who has been part of the planning effort since the beginning. “We don’t need to start over again. We need to finish this,” she said.

Resident Anne Timpson said a task force is needed to devise a new, compromise plan. “You’re never going to bring a community together if you continue to only look at one idea,” she said. The board continues to favor the 1610 Main St. location despite two town meeting failures, she said. “Did you listen to the community?”

“We need to prioritize spending, identify needs over wants,” resident Elaine Gibbs said. A new home for the council on aging should be found in existing under-utilized town facilities, rather than “another oversized municipal building.”

Resident Gloria Freeman said the board should not call a special town meeting to revisit the vote. “After all, you should be representing all the voters, and we have spoken again and again and again,” she said.

“Why do you expect a different outcome when nothing has changed?” resident Dave Mott asked.

Judy Hanlon of the Friends of the Chatham Council on Aging took issue with claims that the plan has remained unchanged, saying the most recent version includes space for a badly needed adult day center. 

“I think it’s embarrassing that we rely on another town to take care of our most fragile citizens,” she said. Hanlon said critics of the proposal say it’s too big, too expensive, badly located or isn’t needed. “It’s the same arguments all the time,” she said.

Patricia Burke, chair of the COA board, said Chatham has many seniors who have serious needs that can only be met at an adequate center for active living. They’re local people who have worked for years in jobs that support the community, “and now what they need is help,” she said. 

Nicastro bristled at the claim that the select board has been ignoring voters.

“There’s a difference between not listening to people and not agreeing with people,” he said. The board has repeatedly weighed all the options for a new senior center and still feels that the West Chatham site is the best option. “Our responsibility as a select board is to show leadership in the community,” Nicastro said. The fact that the 1610 Main St. site was favored twice by a majority of voters — though not a two-thirds majority — “suggests we must be listening to somebody,” he said.

Bringing the matter before voters again doesn’t ensure that the proposal will pass, Nicastro added. “Supporters of 1610 will have a real, genuine challenge ahead” to win the needed two-thirds vote, he said.

Board member Jeffrey Dykens knows that some wonder why the board would bring the matter back before the voters in September.

“Why wouldn’t we do it again? We lost by one vote,” he said. It doesn’t really matter if the board calls a special town meeting, he said. “This is going to come back via petition no matter what we do tonight,” he said, noting that just 200 signatures are needed to call a special town meeting. Dykens encouraged opponents to visit the current senior center to see its shortcomings. “We need a functional senior center for the elderly and for the rest of the community in Chatham,” he said.

It’s already been falsely alleged that the 1610 Main St. site was chosen as the result of “back room deals” or some quid pro quo, Davis said. Rather than believing what’s written on social media or blogs, “just come ask us. We’ll talk to you about it,” she said. “I am thoroughly convinced that 1610 is the right spot for a senior center.” Davis remembers West Chatham being a vibrant neighborhood, and said a new senior center could be a “flagship” for the village center.

Board member Michael Schell, a vocal campaigner for the project, said the proposal is “the right answer for Chatham,” and given the fact that it was researched and vetted exhaustively, it’s also “the last answer.” The senior center has been the subject of planning and debate since 2015, “and we haven’t resolved it. It has to be resolved,” he said. 

With board chair Cory Metters having recused himself from the discussion because of his business interest in a nearby property in West Chatham, the board voted 4-0 to call a special town meeting in September to reconsider Articles 18, 19, 20 and 21 from the annual town meeting warrant. The board has asked town staff to recommend potential dates for the meeting.