Discussion about Chilmark public safety building site goes back to committee

Property owner Helen Benham discourages use of her property.

The pictured plans show alternate layouts for the Chilmark public safety building. — Photo by Edie Prescott

In a meeting on Friday, Nov. 18, Chilmark selectmen spoke with with resident Helen Benham and interested parties to hear a proposal to build the new town public safety building on Middle Road, instead of on a parcel owned by Ms. Benham next to the community center on South Road.

The selectmen, along with Chilmark Fire Chief David Norton and Tri-Town Ambulance board member Jim Newman, met with Ms. Benham, her son Ben Robinson, and two of Ms. Benham’s friends, and viewed a PowerPoint presentation by her land planner, Larry Beals.

The Chilmark public safety building committee identified the so-called Benham/Windy Gates parcel back in February as their preferred site for the new municipal building.

Helen V. Benham of New York City is listed as the owner of a 95.6-acre parcel, valued at $10.8 million in June 2016, from which the town has proposed to carve a lot.

“Surprisingly to me, [Ms. Benham’s party] offered up the Carroll property behind the town hall as an alternative to us looking to acquire their property,” selectman Bill Rossi told The Times Monday afternoon.

The Carroll property at 399 Middle Road was the last other serious contender for the site of the new public safety building, but selectmen took it off the table because it did not have the backing of Fire Chief Norton.

Chief Norton had expressed concerns (Jan. 20, “Chilmark selectmen hear public safety building options”) about the size of the Carroll parcel, the need to share a parking lot with town hall, and emergency trucks entering and exiting Beetlebung Corner from Middle Road.

In an hourlong PowerPoint presentation, Ms. Benham’s representatives made a pitch as to why the Carroll property behind town hall is a better choice for a public-safety building site than is her property on South Road.

Chief Norton said the Benham/Windy Gates property was an ideal location. Chilmark selectmen will now await a new recommendation from the public-safety building site committee.

“She obviously wants us to look for an alternative at this point,” Mr. Rossi told The Times Monday afternoon.

Back in early June (June 8, “Chilmark selectmen eye new site for public safety building), eminent domain was thought of as a last resort, but was on the table.

In an email to selectmen and town public safety officials dated June 1, Andy Goldman, chairman of the public safety site committee, said the committee agreed with the selectmen’s decision not to go forward with the Carroll property, rejected in February due to its size and location, and “looked at several parcels available for purchase in the vicinity of town center. For environmental or other issues, none was acceptable.”

Mr. Goldman said the Benham/Windy Gates parcel “has wetlands, and more would need to be done to study the situation to ascertain whether and in what configuration an approximately [oriented] two-acre parcel could be carved out to satisfy the programmatic objectives for the proposed Public Safety Building.”

In June, Mr. Goldman said more study would be needed. He said acquisition of land “may only be able to be achieved by eminent domain and, if acquisition is only possible in that manner, by unanimous vote of those present at its most recent meeting, [the committee] strongly supports such a taking.”

Mr. Goldman said the committee would work with selectmen “to assure that all questions and concerns relating to this matter be addressed in a series of informational meetings prior to a town meeting at which such a course would be presented.”

Ms. Benham said her property was not suitable because it is too close to public sources of drinking water; the Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program identified her property as being a habitat for rare and endangered species; there is a lack of frontage (if she ever wanted to develop it and make subdivisions and curb cuts); there are wetlands on her property; and that siting the public safety building there does not fit the character of Chilmark.

Mr. Rossi said that the issue about endangered species is an issue Island-wide “on any piece of land.” In terms of the subdivision and curb cuts issue, “I don’t see that as being an insurmountable issue for the town,” Mr. Rossi said.

“We were there to listen and to continue the dialogue. No decisions were made,” Mr. Rossi said.