Two letters have been submitted to Bethel Patch. The first is by First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker and is followed by another letter from Billy Michael.
“Where I Stand – Old Town Hall” By Matthew S. Knickerbocker, First Selectman
On May 30th the Bethel Board of Selectmen made two important announcements. First, after seven long years of fund raising, the long delayed renovation of the Bethel Public Library is ready to resume immediately. Over $2.4 million has been raised from private donations and grants and construction contracts are in place.
Second, the Board voted unanimously to tear down Old Town Hall to allow the project to be finished. The entire cost of removing the building and building the parking lot will be covered by a state grant.
This triggered a petition drive by opponents of the project who hope to force a referendum that will stop the demolition of Old Town Hall. However, there are important facts that should be considered before signing this petition.
The drive to stop the demolition is based on a false argument that it can be sold to private developers to generate tax revenue. Their slogan, “Save It-Sell It-Tax It” ignores the reality that the building is economically unsellable. The cost of renovation, code compliance and removal of lead and asbestos is several times higher than its worth.
Plus, like all cities, Bethel has zoning regulations that property developers must follow. Of critical importance to the economic health of any community is insuring adequate parking to support retail activity. Old Town Hall has no parking of its own and therefore cannot qualify for any commercial use.
Opponents also claim the library architect “guaranteed” Old Town Hall would remain standing. In fact, the original renovation plans always called for the building to be removed to provide adequate parking for the library. The alternative plan putting library parking a block away was accepted only because at the time, with the teen center still in use, there was no other option. But it was a poor idea from the start, and with the teen center now relocated, there is no longer any reason to keep the building.
But even these reasons miss the most important point: Selling this property would be one of the most foolish, short sighted decisions ever made by this town. The town originally acquired this property for public use and it should remain so, now and in the future. If sold, it would be gone for good. No further public use could ever be made of it, whether for the library, for parking to support our downtown retailers or any other future purpose.
The Seelye family could have sold their property in 1914, but didn’t. They gave it to the town for a reason. Even though the town now owns the property and can legally do with it what it wants, violating the spirit of that selfless act today is incredibly misguided.
The opponents have offered no viable plan for the building. If the petitioners are successful at stopping the demolition, Bethel will be left with an empty building for years to come. It would also stop the library renovation, because without additional parking, it cannot move forward. Time is up. Grants and donations will begin expiring this summer if construction does not proceed. By taking down this obsolete building now, we have a rare chance to unlock the potential in the land beneath the building and use it to finish the library, properly, putting its parking where people will use it. It is truly the only fiscally responsible and forward thinking solution.
Billy Michael, Bethel Action Committee, has accumulated about 400 signatures on his petition. He writes:
Bethel residents opposed to the way their Board of Selectmen are disposing of the Old Town Hall should know that the Bethel Action Committee is petitioning to overrule the May 30, 2012 authorizations voted by the Board to demolish this public building.Whether viewed as an asset or a liability, the fact remains that David Jepsen, the library project architect, assured voters at the Town Meeting on December 5, 2000 that the “Old Town Hall will remain” and that “parking as required by zoning would be provided nearby offsite.” The Library supporters approved this plan!
Since the basic premise of the library project is now being drastically changed it would seem only natural that Selectmen operating under town meeting form of government would want to ensure that the the assembled citizenry at town meeting agree with the substantive changes they are proposing.
However, this is not the case. By voting to authorize demolition outside of a referendum, the Selectmen are catering to the Library constituency at the expense of the taxpayers-at-large, as well as circumventing Bethel’s Town Meeting form of government.While their actions may not be illegal, they are inconsistent with the spirit of government based on the consent of the governed.
First, how well-publicized was the May 30th Special Selectmen's Meeting? How many of those reading this letter were aware that demolition of the of the Old Town Hall was on the agenda? Shouldn’t an issue that generated a citizens’ rally as well as a sharply divided Public Hearing deserve a modicum of publicity? While meeting all
legal requirements for notification, most were unaware of this momentous meeting!
Secondly, those who would argue against a referendum because we elect representatives to make these decisions for us might they be reminded that the elected Board of Finance unanimously voted to preserve this building.
There is simply no consensus of support for the demolition. There is only a transparent attempt by the Selectmen to wrap the decision-making process in a protective cocoon, thus insulating them from taxpayer scrutiny.
Thirdly, how does the use of State grant money exempt this project from the oversight of the Board of Finance and the Town Meeting? Doesn’t the fact that these grant monies are derived directly from Bethel's 8000+ state income tax filers as well as other locally paid state taxes and fees in reality make this local money? What precedent is being set here? Does receipt of State grants henceforth allow the Selectmen to do whatever they want for the benefit of a favored voting bloc, and thus free from the oversight of both the Board of Finance and the town citizenry?Fourth, is it not reasonable that in a Town Meeting form of government, disposal of a public building should require the consent of the public? We do not give unbridled power to our neighbors at the November elections; the founding fathers were adamant about diffusing power over the many in order to deprive excessive power to the few.The right to petition this decision to as wide an audience as possible is one of the safeguards provided by our Town Charter. To partake in this most fundamental exercise of democracy, please visit www.bethelaction.com for information on signing the petition online. We will then find you for an in-person signing of this Petition to Overrule Decision to Demolish the Old Town Hall. Billy Michael