History Center and Fairfield residents at odds over Burr Homestead events

FAIRFIELD — Sarah Matthews can tell a wedding is about to end on a weekend night when she hears “Shout” by the Isley Brothers begin to play from Burr Homestead near her home.

“I know exactly when ‘Shout’ is going to come on,” she said. “The fact that even I can hear it, and I’m a block down, that speaks volumes. I can literally sing the songs.”

She and other residents living in the Old Post Road Historic District have spent the past months listening to events at the venue well into weekend nights — and they are frustrated.

Residents said there are more events than usual and they’re not adhering to the noise ordinance.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said she met with area residents to discuss the problem, and has also spoken with Michael Jehle, executive director for the Fairfield Museum and History Center, which also oversees the Burr Homestead.

Kupchick said residents told her events were much less frequent before the town entered into an agreement with the History Center in 2016. They said events were previously maybe every other weekend and now they’re multiple times a weekend.

“Neighbors are feeling like their residential neighborhood is turning into a commercial zone,” she said. “I get that. I hear it and sympathize with them.”

Jehle said the History Center first started hearing complaints about the noise late this summer. While the agreement sets them as stewards of the Burr Homestead, he said he sees it as being middle men working for the town.

The History Center aims to find a number of events each year that meets the town’s needs, as well as the neighborhood.

“I think this is an unusual year because so many events were canceled last year that had to be rescheduled into this year,” he said, noting there have been approximately 30 events in 2021. “We happen to be facing a little rescheduling pile up this year — which has largely been resolved.”

Most of the backlogged events have already happened, Jehle said, with a few more going into next spring.

“We have met with neighbors and we are committed to try and work with them and the town to find the right balance to make both renters, the town and neighbors happy with the middle ground,” he said.

The town has lease agreements with many businesses that operate on town property, Kupchick said, and she told the neighbors she would be reviewing the Burr Homestead Lease agreement with the History Center in the coming months. Under the agreement, the center manages the property and uses it for events. She said the town does not get a benefit from having the center run the venue, though the center does pay some fees to the town since public works maintains it and fixes things when they break.

Issues with noise

Matthews said she grew up in the house she lives in now, and remembers hearing music from events approximately every other weekend. While she noticed an uptick in activity in 2016, she said it really became an issue once COVID-19 restrictions started to get lifted in the spring.

“When things opened up, that’s really when things started to sort of escalate,” she said. “Now, it’s sort of become at least every Friday and Saturday night, and the volume has clearly picked up.”

Matthews said she completely understands how people want to celebrate now that things are returning to normal, but it has gotten incredibly loud. She said she and her neighbors realized something needed to be done when they gathered and realized everyone was frustrated by the noise.

Matthews said she and her neighbors tried to be accommodating, but then reached out to the Museum and History Center for answers when the frequent, louder events became the norm.

“We went over (to Burr Homestead) a couple of times and each time no one has been there,” she said. “It’s just been like the wedding planning hired by the client. That was a little bit frustrating.”

Matthews said the noise has been a nuisance as neighbors try to put their kids to bed, sit outside or generally enjoy their property. When she and her neighbors did sit down with Jehle, she said he directed them to Kupchick and the Board of Selectman.

Neighbors also reached out to the Representative Town Meeting. Matthews said RTM member Bill Perugini has been guiding them through the process.

Matthews said Jehle implied the History Center’s hands were tied because of the terms of the agreement, but she noted there have not been History Center employees at the events to hold accountable for what the client’s contract states.

Matthews said the neighbors just want some respect for the neighborhood, noting they were never informed there would be such an increase in the number of events on the property.

“We’re just trying to make sure we can all coexist peacefully,” she said.

Even during the few times she called the police about the noise, Matthews said she tells them its not an emergency, but the noise and music is really loud. She said it can be like being a guest at a wedding she was not invited to.

Matthews said the meeting with Kupchick on Tuesday was productive, adding she appreciates that the first selectwoman will be looking for solutions to the problem.

“Everybody loves Burr Mansion,” she said. “We just also love our neighborhood and love being able to sit outside without having to hear loud bass pumping and all that.”

The noise ordinance and agreement

Jehle said the History Center has staff at Burr who do everything they can to enforce noise ordinances and keep noise levels down.

“We do our very best to enforce those,” he said. “It’s kind of the best we can do.”

Being a town property, Jehle said the town can set its terms of use.

Kupchick said the contracts people sign to rent the venue stipulates there can be no music after 11 p.m., but residents complained that has not been followed. She said it will be important for her to sit down in the coming months with the town attorney and the History Center to talk about how they are going to move forward with using that space.

All town lease agreements with non-governmental organizations renew every year unless one of the two parties decides to break it, Kupchick said, which they can do within 180 days.

Kupchick said she wants to look into the frequency of events. She said RTM members Perugini and Crissy Kelly are looking into enforcing noise ordinances.

“Right now, the noise ordinance in town is like ‘You can’t have loud music after 11,’” she said. “But it doesn’t have anything about decibels. I know the RTM is looking into doing that in the future.”

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com