Hines Sight / Keep the wrecking ball at bay
Here is one of those times when I just sit back dumbfounded, shaking my head in disbelief at the decisions our decision-makers make and how they do what they do.
Everything looked promising for the preservation of the historic Sturges-Atkinson Cottage and its move from the site of the Carolton Chronic and Convalescent Hospital on Mill Plain Road to town-owned property down the road at the Eunice S. Postol Recreation Center.
The cottage, built in 1840, is an example of Gothic Revival, not many of which are still in existence. The structure was commissioned by Fairfielder Jonathan Sturges, who had it built for his gardener. It was added to the State Register of Historic Places in 2009. The wood-frame building, on a fieldstone and mortar foundation, is situated close to the exit and entrance ramps of Interstate 95.
Efforts to preserve, relocate and refurbish the cottage began more than five years ago when Carmen Tortora, who owns and operates the Carolton, offered it to anyone who would take it from his property. He plans on an expansion of his hospital and the cottage is in the way. Several suggested uses for the cottage surfaced, including moving it to the nearby Roger Ludlowe Middle School property for educational purposes. The Board of Education rejected that idea.
Then along came the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce and a few dedicated residents who think the cottage would make a perfect home for the business organization as well as serve as a visitors' center. Have you ever gone to the chamber office? While it is in an enviable location in the heart of downtown, the office is not easy to get to as visitors first have to find a parking space in Fairfield Center, and then climb a set of stairs. The office has been expanded and renovated over the years and is a warm and welcoming place, but is just inconvenient.
Enter Melanie Marks, Jeanne Harrison and David Sturges, who take on the cottage project as their mission and form the Friends of Sturges Cottage Committee. They have worked hard in gathering all the necessary information, researching all the details in order to take a funding request to the town. Tortora generously offers to give $20,000 of his own money if the town also gives $20,000. The money would be used to disassemble the cottage and store it on the Carolton property (another magnanimous gesture from Tortora) until fundraising is completed for the delicate move of the cottage to its new home. Additionally, Fairfield qualified for a Small Town Economic Assistance Program grant of $100,000 to be used for renovations once the cottage is relocated. The Town Plan and Zoning Commission also recently gave its blessing to have the cottage moved to town property. On Tuesday, the Board of Selectmen approved the $20,000 funding request, authorized First Selectman Ken Flatto to accept the STEAP grant and OK'd the lease arrangement with the chamber.
All sounds good so far, right? Kudos to the Friends committee for its successes.
But what appeared to be clear sailing hit some choppy, unpleasant waters when the funding request and the STEAP grant ran into the Board of Finance, which seemed to be in a bad mood Tuesday night. Even the Fairfield Citizen's Tom Cleary referred to the Board of Finance as "combative" as it questioned Flatto.
Not only did the board unanimously deny the $20,000 request and authorization of the STEAP grant, but members got bogged down in nitpicking the lease agreement, which was not under their purview and was only included in the agenda packet for informational purposes. Board members also claimed that there were too many unanswered questions, including those about future expense to the town and other liabilities, the budget for renovation and upkeep, and whether enough funds would be raised privately.
In reading the various accounts of Tuesday's meeting, I could not help but wonder if the girls' softball field's $350,000 bonding request endured similar scrutiny by Board of Finance members before they approved it 6-1. A check of past articles and board minutes make me think not. Did Board of Finance members question whether the girls' softball league's fundraising efforts to pay for various amenities at the field would be successful? Somehow I doubt it. Or did the board take the league's promises on faith? That's more likely.
"There are unknowns," Flatto is quoted in the Fairfield Citizen as saying to Board of Finance members Tuesday night. "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."
Disturbing and confusing, too, about the Board of Finance's action is that some members actually verbalized that they like the idea of saving the cottage and the project overall. So what happened the other night? Even casual observers would think something else was going on behind it all.
While I am uncertain of the board's motivations the other night, I am sure of one thing -- the three people making up the Friends committee will persevere. I have known all three for years. Marks is a genealogist who has been instrumental in preserving the town's historic cemeteries and other properties. Harrison spent years raising money and awareness to save the Victorian Cottage on the Town Hall complex. And Sturges is a descendant of the Sturges family, which has a long, important history in Fairfield. All three never have backed down from a fight and I don't see any of them starting now.
There is a possibility that the Board of Finance could conduct a special meeting next week to reconsider the money and the grant. Flatto says he will try to answer as many of the board's questions as possible. I am hopeful about both.
In the meantime, other residents need to get involved in the preservation fight. The same energy used to argue with the Board of Education over redistricting plans or the TPZ about new commercial developments can be directed at preserving a part of Fairfield's past. Otherwise, another piece of Fairfield's history just might face the wrecking ball.
Patricia A. Hines can be reached at email@example.com. She also can be followed at http://blog.ctnews.com/hines. In the interest of full disclosure, the author has offered to help the Friends of Sturges Cottage Committee.