June 29, 2012
Explanation of the vote of the Board of Selectmen to raze Old Town Hall
Dear Bethel Resident:
On May 30, 2012, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to raze the building known as Old Town Hall in order to provide the additional parking area that will be required under Bethel’s zoning code in order to complete the expansion of the Bethel Public Library that was begun in 2003. This vote followed two years of study of options that address parking and other related issues. In January the Bethel Planning and Zoning Commission concurred and approved the plan to raze Old Town Hall. A public hearing on the topic was held in March to hear resident’s comments. The following is intended to give members of the public a full understanding of the factors considered by the Board prior to taking this vote.
Q: Why did the Board of Selectmen vote to raze Old Town Hall?
A: There are several considerations, but the primary purpose is to preserve the town’s ownership of this valuable and strategically located property for the future. The property was deeded to the town by the Seelye family in 1914 to provide a library for public use. The small piece of the lot on which Old Town Hall rests serves as the “connector” between the library property and the municipal center complex. The Board felt strongly that the town maintain ownership of this piece of land for use by future generations. There are additional reasons for this decision:
- Making our retail district more successful. A study by an independent urban engineering consulting firm identified lack of parking as a major obstacle affecting the economic health of the town’s retail district, as well as inhibiting future economic development. “Spillover” from the library parking lot is a major contributor to this problem, with library patrons forced to use spaces on Greenwood Avenue that are needed by the retail district, as well as taking up spaces on private business property without permission. Providing adequate parking for the library would help fill our vacant storefronts and improve business.
- Growing the grand list to keep property taxes in check. Also inhibiting the kind of commercial development that would boost Bethel’s tax base is a shortage of sewer capacity. Removing Old Town Hall will release capacity that can be used for new developments that will boost tax revenues.
- Library parking. It is not a matter of convenience. The town is required by code to provide 16 more parking spaces designated exclusively to the Bethel Public Library in order to complete the renovation that began nine years ago. Library usage continues to climb and routinely exceeds 10,000 visits per month.
Q: Did the Board consider selling Old Town Hall?
A: No, it was not considered for sale for the following reasons:
- The property was originally donated to the town by the Seelye family for public use as part of the library, and the town should to retain ownership of the lot for that purpose. The Board felt it would be short sighted to lose control of a strategic piece of property in the middle of our town hall/library complex.
- The building cannot be sold in its present condition and location. It does not conform to Bethel’s zoning requirements with regard to parking and therefore cannot be reused for any commercial purpose.
Q: But couldn’t parking for Old Town Hall be provided nearby or on the street?
A: No. In order to meet the requirement for the library plus the minimum spaces that would be required by code for commercial use of Old Town Hall, the town would need to build a parking lot large enough to hold 35 cars on the lawn of the Clifford J. Hurgin Municipal Center. This would encompass about half of the total lawn space of the center and would greatly restrict use of the property (Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day ceremonies, Scotty Fund Town Picnic, St. Mary’s carnival, Relay for Life, etc. would no longer be possible). The Board was adamant that these properties remain available for public use.
Q: Couldn’t parking for the building be located along the street?
A: No. Zoning code requires all business and residential properties to have dedicated, on-site parking. Street parking is considered “public”, not dedicated to the building, and is insufficient in this case, anyway.
Q: Instead of building a big lot on the lawn, could angled parking be constructed along School Street?
A: No. Angled parking, like that found around P.T.Barnum Square, is no longer permitted due to the high incidence of vehicular collisions that occur with this design.
Q: Could the town acquire parking spaces from the lots next door to Old Town Hall to make it possible to sell the building?
A: No. The two adjacent properties are subject to the same zoning requirements and must maintain a minimum amount of space of their own. In addition, these are private properties and neither owner has expressed any interest to the town in selling their property.
Q: Couldn’t people who use the Old Town Hall building also use the library lot?
A: No. The library lot is restricted by the Seelye family deed and can be used for the library only. In fact, selling Old Town Hall for private commercial use would require the town to restrict access to the library lot and hire enforcement personnel to police it.
Q: The original library approval called for a lot to be constructed at the side of the Municipal Center. Can that still be done to save Old Town Hall?
A: No, for two reasons:
- The original 16 space design can no longer be accommodated due to the placement of the municipal center emergency generator (which was installed after the library plan was approved).
- Now that Bethel is the seat of the District Probate Court, any future constructed on the west side of the municipal center should be dedicated for court and town hall use only.
- Even if parking library parking was relocated elsewhere, parking must also be provided for the Old Town Hall building in order to make it conform with zoning regulations before it could be sold. There is no other area for parking expansion other than the front lawn of the municipal center, and this is an untenable solution.
Q: How would razing Old Town Hall help our retail district?
A: A 2010 study by Milone & McBroome, an engineering and planning consulting firm, found that Bethel’s lack of parking was a major factor affecting limiting the success of our Greenwood Avenue retailers. Contributing to the problem is the fact that library usage has grown to 10,000 to 12,000 visits per month. At peak usage times the library lot is filled to capacity, causing a spillover on to Greenwood Avenue and taking parking needed by retailers. Razing Old Town Hall would greatly alleviate this problem by providing adequate parking for the library, plus about 10 extra spaces for general use.
Q: How would razing Old Town Hall help promote future economic growth?
A: As mentioned previously, our downtown district suffers from a lack of sewerage capacity. The town has already been forced to turn down a proposed retail and residential development that would have boosted tax revenue because of this problem. By reassigning the sewer capacity now allocated to Old Town Hall, future developments will be possible. One under consideration by the Planning and Zoning Commission could bring as much as $650,000 in new tax revenue. Razing Old Town Hall will release its sewer allocation and make new economic development possible.
Q: I heard there were people “waiting in the wings” to buy the building. True?
A: No. There have been no offers of any kind, verbal or otherwise, to buy the building. One developer contacted this office to inquire about the possibility of taking over the building for free, but only on condition that the town dedicate the lawn of the municipal center for parking in order to make the building code compliant. The developer later withdrew his inquiry.