By George Moore
As published in the Record Journal Thursday August 13, 2009
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WALLINGFORD — The exchange is getting tense and accusations are flying.
Two months after Choate Rosemary Hall Headmaster Edward J. Shanahan met individually with town councilors to discuss closing a portion of Old Durham Road to allow the school to build an environment a l center in the area, a dialogue between Shanahan and council Chairman Michael Brodinsky at Tuesday’s council meeting revealed discord between the school and the town. “ Unfortunately it’s turned into politics and I’m a little disappointed the chair of the council hasn’t moved this along,” Shanahan said Wednesday, adding that consideration of the private school’s request for the road is being delayed by political considerations.
He suspects that some are trying to put off a vote on the issue until election season this November.
But Brodinsky said assessing a road closure is “a deliberative process that takes time.” He added that he has already stated publicly that the council will hold an up-or-down vote on Choate’s offer in September.
“Choate is in a hurry and they want the council to be in a hurry, so when we don’t march to their tune he’s quick to criticize,” Brodinsky said. “Ed doesn’t understand our responsibility to the public.”
Brodinsky said it is important to establish how the environmental center would be set up, among several other details, before making a decision that would affect residents. He noted he is not running for re-election.
Democratic Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos said the school ruffled some feathers when it made an offer for the road July 10. In exchange for closing the street, the school offered either to pay its appraised value, $260,000, or deed its boathouse property, off of Washington Street, to the town.
Economopoulos said the letter was off-base mentioning that the boathouse was appraised at $645,000 in December of 2006, since the economy has declined since then.
“It’s almost like they think we’re stupid,” he said.
But Shanahan said the offer letter, written by Board of Trustees Chairman Herbert V. Kohler Jr., was forthright. He noted that the letter did state that the $645,000 should be reduced 30 percent to take into account the current economy.
Economopoulos also dismissed as bunk a letter Kohler sent to Brodinsky the day of the meeting, in which Kohler argued that, even if “there was no intent to return the land to an environmental preserve, the road should be closed as an example of sound governance.”
Republican Councilor Robert Parisi said he wasn’t exactly satisfied with how the meeting was conducted Tuesday, but said it did clear up some questions.
Parisi said he would like to get a chance to negotiate with Choate about the terms of the road exchange. But negotiating could be difficult, since the discussions would have to be held in a public session. The town attorney has determined the town cannot go into closed-door executive sessions when it is talking about selling its own property.
Parisi said he has reached out to more than a hundred residents and found that the majority were in favor of the project.
Rosemary Rascati, a Republican councilor, said she would like some clarification on how the school intends to preserve the land around the center. She said she would also like more specifics on how Choate would incorporate public school students into activities at the environmental center, something it promised to do as part of its proposal.
Democratic Councilor Vincent F. Testa Jr. acknowledged that Tuesday’s meeting was “a little tense,” but said part of that had to do with confusion over some of Choate’s plans.
It was clarified at the meeting, for instance, that the school plans to dedicate land as open space, though it would still hold title to the property.
Shanahan said the 128 acres east of East Main Street will be permanently dedicated as open space under a legal covenant. That land could not be developed, except for environmental center-related activities. The remaining acreage would also remain undeveloped, though it would not be legally deemed open space.
Kohler, president and chairman of the Wisconsin-based Kohler Co., a supplier of bathroom fixtures, would be the sole donor for the construction of the center, which is estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million.
Brodinsky said he is eyeing the council’s Sept. 8 meeting for a vote. “That’s my current line of thinking,” he said Wednesday.