Our View: Senior Center In The Woods?

The “cabin in the woods” scenario is now a well-worn horror movie trope. An incredibly clueless group, usually college age or 20-somethings, decamps to an isolated, dilapidated cottage despite warnings of hauntings, deranged neighbors or ancient curses. Mayhem ensues.

Plunking a new Chatham senior center in the middle of the woods probably won't have the same results – as far as we know, there are no ancient burial grounds or portals to the underworld off Middle Road – but it's probably not the best site for a new council on aging facility to serve the town's ever-growing population of senior citizens.

The 98,608-square-foot parcel was identified by town staff as the best town-owned location to build a new senior center based on a consultant's recommendation that a site of at least two acres was necessary to accommodate a 14,000- to 16,000-square foot building. It's across Middle Road from the wastewater treatment plant and the transfer station, and backs up to open space that leads down to Goose Pond.

First there are the environmental concerns. Construction of the building and the necessary 75 to 100 parking spaces would clear close to two acres of woodland and result in a wide swath of pavement where today trees stand. There's not likely to be drainage issues, given the amount of property available to work with, but for many, including some selectmen, infringing on open space is problematic.

And then there's the matter of sequestering seniors down a back road in the middle of a combination municipal use, open space and residential neighborhood. Is that the best mix? Access would not be a problem, but traffic on Middle Road would increase significantly and the distance from the town's main population centers and other town facilities could be a concern.

Based on the staff analysis, among town-owned properties, only this site and another even farther back into the woods off Middle Road would be suitable for a new senior center. We wholeheartedly endorse the need and the move toward a new facility for our active senior community, but feel those sites are not the best. Selectmen have asked staff to put out a request for proposal to solicit private property in town that might fit the bill, and that seems to us where the most effort should be made. Redevelopment of an existing building or parcel – ideally located closer to downtown, near existing parking facilities to cut down on the amount of pavement needed – makes more sense and conforms to the town's comprehensive plan. And there are sites out there; we know of at least one that is no longer available that could have suited the COA's needs nicely. Having to buy land will add to the projected $7 to 9 million cost of a senior center, but for a facility that will serve more than half the town's population for a half century, it's worth exploring to its fullest.

Let's not leave our elders stranded in a senior center in the woods.