Financiers hold up move of historic Sturges cottage
Published 4:10 pm, Wednesday, October 6, 2010
After hours of discussion and debate by two town boards, initial funding to save the 160-year-old Sturges Gardner's Cottage was put on hold Tuesday. Following approval to kick start the move and renovation of the building by the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance at a lengthy meeting decided to vote against the initial funds, halting the potential move in its tracks.
The selectmen earlier Tuesday approved the use of a $100,000 state grant that will cover design and renovation work once the structure is moved from its current home on the Mill Plain Road property of the Carolton Convalescent Hospital to the town's Eunice S. Postol Recreation Center down the street. To finance the move, the selectmen also voted to approve $20,000 in town funds.
But two hours later, the Board of Finance voted 0-6-1, with Michael Tetreau abstaining, against the funding, stopping it from going forward. Board members Kevin Kiley and Chairman Thomas Flynn were not at the meeting.
The selectmen, who delayed a decision on the same topic last month, also approved an agreement that would purchase the cottage from its current owner for $1 and then allow the town to rent it to the Chamber of Commerce to use as an office and visitor center. The chamber's office is currently located on the Post Road.
The finance board members expressed concern over the lease agreement with the Chamber of Commerce, the town's future costs relating to the upkeep of the building and whether the reconstruction and move itself would be viable, based on its cost and the need for fundraising to support it.
At the Board of Finance meeting, a combative board grilled First Selectman Kenneth Flatto and preservationists who presented the item. Board member Michael Tetreau asked more than 15 questions and went nearly line by line through the documents provided to him, including the lease agreement with the chamber, the Board of Selectmen meeting minutes and plans for the future use of the building. He was one of several finance board members who questioned Flatto multiple times about future costs to the town.
Board member Ken Brachfield said that, in his opinion, he was not voting against the idea of preserving the cottage itself, but said there are "literally hundreds of open-ended questions, I'm almost not exaggerating." He said there is no actual budget and it is "back of envelope" in terms of what it might cost. "I can't vote for it in its present form, but not because I think it is necessarily a bad idea. But in a way town has no more than $20,000 in exposure, right now the town has almost unlimited exposure," he said.
Tetreau said he likes the project and that the structure is worth saving. He suggested that a special meeting could be held next week to keep it "on track," because most of the questions could be clarified in a week. "I just feel like we got hit by a lot of pieces, including a lack of consensus from the Board of Selectmen."
Flatto said he would welcome reviewing the issue in a timely manner and would be happy to get questions answered as best as he can, without holding another Board of Selectmen meeting. But, he said, "It does come down to $20,000." There is no way, in his opinion, to give a legitimate budget, although he wishes that he could. "You are not going to get that information," Flatto added.
"There are unknowns," Flatto said, suggesting that it is possible that $200,000 needed to complete the renovations would never be raised. "There is no guarantee, it is a leap of faith. I can't give you all the guarantees some of you are looking for and it would be disingenuous to say I could."
Earlier in the afternoon, after over an hour of discussion at a special meeting held to streamline the approval process, the selectmen's vote was split into three parts. The board voted 2-0-1, with James Walsh abstaining, to approve a lease agreement with the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce. Walsh chose to abstain from the vote because of an issue he had with the $600 rent, not including utilities or maintenance, that the chamber would pay each month. He claimed that could be considered below market value and said the town code allows only for below-market rent to be given to "charitable" organizations. He said he was not comfortable voting for the lease without knowing whether or not the chamber is considered a charitable organization, or simply a nonprofit.
Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Kennelly said she would have to take one or two days to do that research. Flatto said he is "comfortable with the language of the lease," because it has enough conditions to make it fair rent. Selectman Sherri Steeneck said she did not think it would be possible to determine fair market rent, when the building is not even completed yet.
The selectmen then voted 2-0-1 to approve the state grant, with the stipulation that it not be spent until at least $50,000 is raised by the Friends of Sturges Gardner's Cottage group, a stipulation of the rent. That addition was proposed by Flatto and seconded by Walsh. Steeneck abstained, stating that she did not want to "handcuff" the group from fundraising, since it will be easier to garner donations as the project moves along.
Finally, the selectmen voted to move $20,000 from the town's contingency fund for a grant to the chamber to help move the building. Walsh again abstained, making the vote in favor 2-0-1.
Walsh said he would like to see the move happen and the chamber take over the building, but wants to make sure it is done in the right way, so no one can come back to the board and say they ignored town code or bent the rules to get this approved.
The Board of Finance also restructured the motion it was voting on, accepting the selectmen's resolution, including amendments. It split it into two parts, since the finance board does not vote on the lease agreement itself.
Marks, a member of the Friends group, said they would not be coming back for any other town funds, but need to move forward. She said it is not fair to raise money when the project has not even been approved yet. Marks also said she is looking for the town to commit to help them gain grants, since their group cannot apply for them on their own.
The cottage is currently located behind Carolton at 400 Mill Plain Road. The property is owned by Carmen Tortora Jr., who plans to expand his facility, which would require the cottage's removal. Tortora would like the cottage off his property by January at the latest, according to the Friends of Sturges Gardner's Cottage Committee, and the group would like to begin moving the structure by winter, prompting the special meeting of the selectmen to keep the project on schedule. The selectmen have to approve the funding and grant prior to the Board of Finance. Tortora told the group that he would match the $20,000 the town is providing.
Built in 1840, preservationists want the cottage saved as an example of Gothic Revival architecture. Under the proposal, the structure would be moved from the convalescent home property to the northeast corner of the parking lot at the recreation center, covering about 10 parking spaces in the existing lot.
The vote was postponed at the board's Sept. 15 meeting to allow the selectmen to review an agreement with the property neighboring the Postol Recreation Center regarding the construction and use of a parking lot that would replace the parking spots covered by the cottage. The new lot would provide 40 to 60 additional spaces and would be paid for by Fischel Properties, owners of the neighboring Sportsplex facility. Fischel Properties would be given use of a portion of the spots for up to three years, under the agreement.
In addition, the delay allowed for Flatto to qualify for a state STEAP (Small Town Economic Assistance Program) grant, satisfying the request from the Friends of Sturges Gardner's Cottage group for funding to help with the move. Those funds will now likely not be acquired by the town, since Flatto was not given the authority to accept it.