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Old Town Hall Referendum TODAY: Letters to the Editor

Matt Knickerbocker and Bill Hillman have their final says on whether or not to take down the Old Town Hall.

 

Dear Editor: Our town is at a very critical decision point.  A successful vote to overturn the Board of Selectmen on the basis of a mistaken belief that the building can be saved and reused will cause the building to continue to sit empty for years to come and put the library project on an indefinite “hold”.  I have constructed the following question and answer guide to help voters understand the facts and the complex factors related to this issue.   Again, I urge all Bethel residents to vote NO on Tuesday, July 17th.  It is the only way to guarantee immediate completion of the library, at zero cost to taxpayers, as well as a healthier business district.

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 for the benefit of all Bethel residents.  Selling the property for private use violates the intent of the Seelye will; if the family wanted to sell it, they would done so many years ago.  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.  Once sold to a private owner, it could never be used by the town again.  The Board felt strongly that the town must maintain ownership of this piece of land for future generations.  There are additional reasons for this decision:

1.      Making our retail district more successful.  A study by an independent 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.

2.      Growing the grand list to keep property taxes in check.  Also inhibiting new 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.

3.      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 to about 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:1.      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.2.      The building cannot be sold because of the size of the lot on which it sits.  Without its own dedicated parking lot, as required by our zoning board, it can not be converted to commercial use.  Also, the parking requirement can not be waived.  There is no such thing as a "hardship waiver" in this instance. 

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 about 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. 

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:        But wouldn't expanding the library parking lot make the traffic congestion at the intersection worse?

 A:        No.  It would relieve traffic congestion with the proper flow of entrances and exits.  In fact, selling Old Town Hall would actually make traffic congestion much, much worse by adding new businesses into an area that is already congested and has insufficient parking.  Old Town Hall would never be approved for commercial use for this very reason. 

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 three reasons:

1.      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).

2.      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.

3.      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 unacceptable 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 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.  During times of peak usage the library lot is filled to capacity, causing a spillover on to private businesses and on to Greenwood Avenue, taking parking needed by retailers.  Razing Old Town Hall would greatly alleviate this problem by providing adequate parking for the library as well as extra spaces to support business activity. 

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:        There is absolutely no truth to this rumor.  There have been no offers of any kind, verbal or otherwise, to buy the building.  One developer did contact this office to inquire about taking over the building for free, but with the condition that the town also give away the lawn of the municipal center for parking in order to make the building to comply with zoning codes.  Upon further discussion of that and other factors, the developer withdrew his inquiry.If you would like to discuss further, please feel free to contact me at 203-794-8501, or via email at mknicker@gmail.com.  

Matt Knickerbocker

Bethel, CT  06801 

mknicker@gmail.com 

 

 

Bill Hillman wrote:

From Bill Hillman:

 The matter of Bethel’s Old Town Hall has been forced to an expensive machine vote. For those who want to see the Library finally completed, do not be complacent. The people who have successfully petitioned; BAC, the remnants of the now defunct “Pro-Bethel” party, and others have mailing lists, telemarketing skills and the ability to draw in at least 800 or more yes votes.

 Central to the proponents of this petition are two key arguments. One, being a so-called right of the people to make this decision, though Bethel’s charter specifically does not call for either a Town meeting or a vote to demolish a worthless town property.

 The other argument, based on a misguided belief that there’s some commercial value in a building that is laden with asbestos, has no parking, would cost hundreds of thousands to renovate only to find myriad obstacles to zoning and unable to ever get certified for occupancy. Some are using this to draw attention to a new third party born from the old “Pro-Bethel” group. New name, same people, no need give them attention here.

 So a NO vote is FOR the library’s completion. A strong NO vote sends a clear message to the “Pro” group that their type of negativism is no longer wanted.  But remember, opponents of progress will bring out their vote. The rest of us need to show up and vote in big numbers to shut them down. Vote NO, and let Bethel move on. Let’s complete the Library!

Bill Hillman

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Tubeworm July 17, 2012 at 03:54 AM
What retail/residential development was the town forced to decline!?!? :(. (sad face)
Ann July 17, 2012 at 10:52 AM
I had suggested to Matt Knickerbocker that they might want to consider knocking down the back part of the building and leave just the cape part of the building which would leave space for parking and adjusting the traffic flow (the road could be moved over to be directly opposite the exit from the post office and the parking could be extended down the front of Town Hall to the corner adding several spots there. The town could develop and rent out the building (since Matt had suggested the town is on an upswing with several new establishments). Personally, I don't think they've considered all options. Plus, just because zoning calls for one thing doesn't mean it can't be changed since the town does variances for lots of reasons. If the town were to manage the building and rent it out, the additional parking could be used for the library and the rented building. Plus, if the town kept the building and added parking, I would think they would still qualify for that grant they talk about for the parking lot they want to build.

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