The decision made by Planning and Zoning commissioners to place heavy restrictions preventing certain town departments from moving to North Center School has led town administrators to take action and begin collecting data as soon as possible.
The town has a short timetable, officials said, to convince members to modify the stipulations before the project could reach a stalemate – and potentially cost the town thousands in additional leasing costs, according to Town Manager Garrison Brumback.
“We are hopeful this won’t put a stop to the project,” Brumback said Wednesday. Town administrators and professionals are "trying to see if there is a reasonable way to get all the information requested last night to the Planning and Zoning Commission in a rapid manner as to not squirrel the deal.”
Led by Republican Paul Chapinsky Jr., the commission voted 4-3 along party lines Tuesday to pass a special exception allowing the North Center School to be used as municipal office space only if certain departments are restricted. Under the list presented, the town could move only Youth Services, the Finance Department, the registrar of voters and any probate functions to the school.
Citing studies published in the Planning Commissioners Journal regarding economic development in Burlington, VT, Chaplinsky had argued that moving the departments would be “detrimental to downtown businesses” by taking removing existing customers from the downtown area.
Now town officials are meeting to gather as much data as possible to convince members it’s important to modify their special exception or risk losing the project altogether.
Town officials including Brumback, Town Attorney Mark Sciota and School Superintendent Joseph Erardi Jr. met Wednesday and will meet again Thursday to start gathering as much information as possible to show why it would be in the best interest of the town to move the departments that were originally selected.
“We got our marching orders from the subcommittee, issues were brought up then and we were told there was no need to collect data, but we can support the proposal originally made,” Brumback said.
Town Council Chairman Edward Pocock III said given the unusual restrictions presented by the commission – ones that Sciota said could be challenged in an appeal in New Britain Superior Court – there are only three options now remaining to determine how to move forward in addressing a clear space issue at town hall.
“The first option is that we simply accept those stipulations and given they circumvented the Town Council, that’s an unacceptable option,” Pocock said. “The second option is to squirrel the project altogether and the third, which I believe is our best option, is to provide the data members requested [Tuesday night]so they can see the same vision we were presented by our experts.”
Pocock said he understands there are questions, but many of the concerns have already been addressed publicly. He said the restrictions drastically underutilize the space at the North Center School and make it a far less cost effective move while also leaving space issues at Town Hall.
Furthermore, he said studies show that the move – just a 1/4 mile drive down Route 10 to North Main Street – also includes the relocation of the Beecher Street offices that will now be 1.1 miles closer to Town Hall and provide additional potential downtown traffic that would make up, if not add to, the number of customers in the downtown commercial district.
Council Minority Leader John Barry declined comment on the decision made by commissioners, saying he wanted to look further into their specific concerns before reacting.
Chaplinsky, however, said he does not see the move as a complimentary one and with no information he could not support the town’s busiest departments moving away from Town Hall. He said if studies showed otherwise, he’d suggest a modified motion but voted against a stipulation for further studies on Tuesday.
Sciota said Wednesday that his proposal for further studies would have focused on minimizing negative effects, if any existed, and town administrators are now regrouping to get figures regarding the number of downtown patrons that would stop frequenting businesses as a result of the move.
But time remains of the essence, Brumback said, as Borghesi Building and Development of Torrington, the company that agreed to buy, lease and sell back the North Center School, may not hold its bid beyond the end of the month.
Borghesi has been patient despite rising oil prices and economic struggles that have led them to lose a shot at making any profit out of the deal, town officials said, and Brumback said failure to act soon would lead to the deal coming to a complete halt.
“In my opinion, if we want a reasonable shot at Borghesi holding firm on their numbers then we need to complete this deal by the end of the month,” Brumback said. “We are rapidly collecting that data and I would encourage a special meeting of the Planning Commission prior to the Town Council meeting on March 28 so we can pass it then.”
Although there is still work to be done and a modification must be made to move forward – several officials said it would not be cost effective to the town or taxpayer under the conditions approved by the commission – Brumback, Sciota, Erardi and Pocock all expressed that they are remaining optimistic a deal will be reached.
“At this point there is no reason to feel downtrodden, but we need to work together to move forward,” Pocock said. “Keeping the building half empty does not solve the problem and is not cost effective. We can’t do that to the taxpayer.”
Pocock said that if the commission remains steadfast in its decision and modifications aren’t agreed to by its next scheduled meeting on April 5 at the latest, it would mean the town would be left with only one last option which is to lease space in a more traditional and expensive manner.
Furthermore Pocock said it would force the Board of Education administration, which is located in a 99-year-old facility, to also consider other additional options - at higher costs and with no collaboration with the town.
“It’s really a no brainer, killing this project will not solve the space problem that exists at town hall,” Pocock said. “This is by far the most cost-effective solution the town has come up with and if it is not approved, we will still have to move departments away but it will come at a larger cost.”