In a new Letter to the Editor, sent this morning, the First Selectman, Matthew Knickerbocker, outlined his reasons why he felt Phillip Gallagher’s Letter to the Editor was an unsound argument. That letter follows this announcement.
Billy Michael, of the Bethel Action Committee, contacted Patch this morning to announce that the petition to require a referendum had received the requisite 546 signatures, representing five percent of Bethel voters. The signatures were qualified by Town Clerk Lisa Bergh.
“According to charter, we had 30 days to bring in a petition of five percent of the voters to overrule the selectman. Now they have seven to 14 days to schedule a referendum,” Michaels said.
At noon today, the Board of Selectmen met to decide the date for the referendum, which will be Tuesday, July 17. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m.
The referendum will put an end to a more than ten year discussion, which originally surfaced when the original plan to expand the library was conceived.
Ten years ago, before it was established that the building was unsuitable for use due to asbestos and lead, it was being used as the town’s Teen Center. The architects at that time came up with a new parking plan that was approved by Planning and Zoning, that enabled the Teen Center to continue. The library parking was expected to be more than a block away at the Municipal Center, by removing the lawn on the right side of the Municipal Center building.
However, according to Knickerbocker, “That was a lousy solution but the only alternative.”
Since then, changes have occurred that Knickerbocker said makes that possibility impossible. In 2010, the Municipal Center was established as the Probate Court for the region, which includes Bethel, Newtown, Ridgefield and Redding. Knickerbocker said this has increased the need for parking at the Municipal Center.
The town has also placed an enormous generator, that ran the shelter during the power outages caused by last year’s storms, where the parking exit would have had to be. “So parking at the Municipal Center is no longer a viable option,” Knickerbocker said.
After the Old Town Hall was closed for safety reasons, Knickerbocker said the building is now uneconomical to renovate and there is still no parking, “so the whole scenario has changed.”
“The town has no further use of the building. Teens aren’t using it, developers can’t renovate it, there is no parking for the building. We re-evaluated, and there is really no longer any reason not to put the library parking at the library,” he said.
Knickerbocker wrote the following before office hours, from his personal email address:
J. Phillip Gallagher’s “where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way” editorial is a fantasy filled with almost impossible “what if’s”. His list of former town properties all have one thing in common: Parking; a code requirement Old Town Hall does not and can never have, and that is the one element that made it possible to sell them.
But again he ignores the most important point: The Seelye property was donated to the town for the benefit of all Bethel citizens and it should remain so, now and for the future.
If we follow the logic that any given piece of taxpayer-owned property should be sold for the sake of tax revenue, imagine the possibilities if we sold off Parloa, Meckaurer and Bennett Park properties for housing developments.
Obviously, this is absurd. These properties exist to benefit the public, and the lot under Old Town Hall is no exception. Bethel voters have an opportunity to improve our business district as well as complete the library renovation at no cost to taxpayers.
That is a critical point. Some backers of the petition drive said they never wanted a bigger library to begin with. Yet they fail to recognize their tax dollars were spent years ago building the part that now sit empty. If it’s not completed, that money will have been wasted.
Bethel residents must clearly understand that a vote to overturn the Board of Selectmen will stop the library renovation and an unusable building with hazardous materials will remain standing, empty, for years to come. Razing Old Town Hall will result in immediate completion of the library and an opportunity for a healthier and more successful retail district along Greenwood Avenue.
Let’s move ahead. I urge all Bethel residents to VOTE NO on the upcoming referendum.
Matthew S. Knickerbocker, First Selectman