Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.
As published in the Record Journal Sunday August 23, 2009
The headmaster of Choate appeared before our Wallingford Town Council once again on August 11th. The discussion, which should have centered around and been limited to the justification for closing part of Old Durham Road and the compensation to the town for doing so, ranged far and wide.
It began with Chairman Brodinsky’s forty five minute interrogation of headmaster Shanahan. A third of that time was taken up discussing how the students would travel between the environmental center and the main campus. Following that was an attempt to diminish the significance of Choate’s willingness to legally designate that 130 acres of their property would never be developed by suggesting that, unless the public had unrestricted access “as a matter of right,” it really was not open space.
The entire exchange was best summed up by the chairman himself when he said that he considered the residents of Wallingford his “clients.” Indeed, the place had the air of a courtroom until other councilors were able to participate.
The multi-hour discussion yielded three general observations:1)the “town-gown” relationship between Choate and its host community needs improvement; 2) the “nanny state” is thriving in Wallingford, and 3) the distinction between public and private property is dangerously blurring.
“Town/Gown” relationship: Because of the very divergent responsibilities each has, maintaining a cordial working relationship between an exclusive private school and a town government takes effort. However, both organizations have one common responsibility upon which a good relationship can be built and maintained: the education of children. The most relevant parts of the entire discussion involved questions as to the extent that Choate might be willing to include local high school students in the activities of its environmental center.
I hope the headmaster takes a cue from the high degree of interest in that subject. By involving these students in an ongoing and substantive way, not only would Choate be providing a unique educational opportunity to children who might not otherwise have it, but the school would be building a common bond between itself and the town. Both entities would be much the better for it.
“Nanny State”: If you watch this meeting without cringing at the minutia into which a couple of Town Councilors delved, you have become inured to the nanny state mentality which is creeping into our daily lives. Choate Rosemary Hall has housed and protected thousands of young men and women for over a century. They are experts at it, and I am unable to see how the release of an easement allowing a public road over Choate’s property gives some of our public officials license to advise the school in carrying out that function. The school administration is capable of determining on its own where to construct paths and buildings on their own property without having to run every aspect of their plans by elected officials.
Private property/public rights: Choate Rosemary Hall is a private institution that owns hundreds of acres of property. In an effort to be a good neighbor, the school has shared some of its facilities with the town. Now it appears that a couple of Town Councilors have assumed that this gracious generosity is no longer a privilege but a right, and, additionally, that the private property the school promises to leave undeveloped is somehow no win the public domain. Do you remember a few years back how some busy bodies hectored Cytec about having Little League fields next to their chemical plant? And what was the result of that exchange? I am not suggesting that Choate will withdraw its involvement with the town as did Cytec. I am saying that officials that take for granted the civic-mindedness of private concerns put at risk all the goodwill built up by that generosity.
Stay tuned. And as you do, please keep in mind that surrounding this issue are others far larger than the closing of a small country road.