Selectmen vote to move Bantam plan to referendum
Lyle Linsley of Bantam, during Tuesday's meeting of the Board of Selectmen, comments on a plan to transfer the former Bantam School property to the Litchfield Housing Trust. BZ photo
Litchfield voters in the fall will have their chance to consider the Board of Selectmen's proposal to transfer the former Bantam School property to the Litchfield Housing Trust for affordable housing.
The board on Tuesday voted to hold a town meeting on the proposal and to adjourn the meeting to a referendum. Dates for the town meeting and referendum will be determined by the board this summer.
The housing trust would renovate the old school into 14 rental apartments and build 10 single-family ownership houses on the 10.5-acre property. Under the proposal, the Bantam post office would remain in the building and the building's gym would continue to be used by the Parks and Recreation Department.
The five town offices in the Town Hall Annex portion of the building would be moved out, either to a new town hall if voters approve one in another upcoming referendum, or to existing space somewhere in town.
Selectmen capped 18 months of discussion and planning with their vote at the Litchfield firehouse on Tuesday. In addition to discussing the proposal at numerous board meetings, selectmen have held two public hearings on the plan in Bantam and one in Litchfield. The proposal has been covered heavily by the media.
"We began talking about a solution for (the former school) six years ago," Selectman Jonathan Torrant said in responding to claims from opponents of the proposed transfer that the plan has been created with a lack of transparency. "For the last year and a half, this idea has been on the table for all to see, so for someone to say there's no transparency and that we're moving too fast, they haven't been paying attention."
Opponents of the plan to convert the old school and its grounds into affordable housing believe the property is too valuable to surrender and should be maintained for municipal use. Selectmen, citing the building's annual operating cost of roughly $170,000, contend that the property is fiscal liability and should be disposed.
Bantam Superior Court vacated the building last September and took with it the annual rent of $200,000 it was paying the town. If the town were to keep the property, taxpayers would have to subsidize its maintenance.
One Bantam resident, Lyle Linsley, suggested the Borough of Bantam be given the property and assume its operating costs. The building also needs an estimated $388,000 in repairs to its heating, air conditioning and ventillation systems and $278,000 in environmental remediation costs. The remediation costs, which include the removal of asbestos and lead in the building and underground oil outside, would be assumed by the housing trust if voters approve the transfer.
First Selectman Leo Paul Jr., like Torrant, expressed support for the process selectmen have followed leading up to a vote in the fall.
"Every voter will have their say, because none of this is happening behind closed doors," Paul said. "We've had numerous public meetings and discussions."
One resident, Burke Gibney, said the proposed transfer shouldn't be taken to a vote until selectmen make the proposed contract between the town and the housing trust public. The proposed contract has been available to the public for three weeks. Copies were available at a public hearing in May, have been available at Town Hall, and were available at Tuesday's selectmen's meeting.
Another resident, Kim MacDonald, said the town needs to resolve the town hall issue first before taking action on the Bantam property.
"If a plan for a town hall passes, then we can explore options for (the Bantam site)," MacDonald said. "I request the Board of Selectmen table the proposed transfer and present a clear plan for all options. You don't get rid of something before all options are explored. It doesn't make sense to me."
Selectman Jeffrey Zullo reminded the meeting that four town committees have studied the Bantam building and other town buildings over a span of 12 years in an effort to develop plans for a new town hall. All of the sites were ruled out for use as town hall, including the Bantam building.
Below, an aerial view of the former Bantam School. Peter Tavino photo