Litchfield’s Board of Selectmen took steps Tuesday to finalize dates for a special town meeting and referendum on a proposal to spend up to $7.6 million to convert the former Litchfield County courthouse into a town hall.
Selectmen approved dates of Dec. 11 for the special town meeting and Dec. 19 for the referendum, dates forced by a petition generated by the owner of the courthouse, the Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust.
The special town meeting will be adjourned to the referendum, which will also ask voters to consider accepting the courthouse as a gift from the GLPT.
In addition to setting the dates, selectmen – with the exception of Jeffrey Zullo – repeated their opposition to the proposal for the courthouse. First Selectman Leo Paul Jr. said he will be voting ‘no’ in the referendum because he believes the building is not suitable for a town hall.
“I don’t think it’s the right option,” Paul said, who added that a referendum six days before Christmas is not an ideal situation.
The timetable between the GLPT’s submission of its petition and the dates for the special town meeting and referendum will hamper voting by absentee ballot in the referendum. The town clerk’s office is unable to print and mail absentee ballots to meet the requirements of state law, thereby limited voting by absentee ballot to Dec. 15, 17 and 18.
“It is disappointing the referendum will be held a week before Christmas,” Board of Finance Chairman William Burgess said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We should encourage high voter turnout and doing this a week before Christmas is not the right way.”
Paul also criticized the GLPT for forcing the referendum with its petition after a plan by the selectmen to bring to a referendum a plan to build a new town hall for $9.2 million was scuttled by the Board of Finance, which voted not to authorize bonding for the project if voters were to approve it.
Prior to supporting the $9.2 million plan, selectmen rejected the idea of accepting the GLPT’s proposed gift and spending up to $7.6 million on the courthouse. Following the finance board’s action, the GLPT launched its successful petition drive to force the special town meeting and referendum.
After the courthouse project was recommended to the selectmen by the town hall review committee in September, the GLPT revealed that its proposed gift came with restrictions. That caught the ire of selectmen, who criticized the GLPT for not revealing the restrictions until after the town hall review committee completed 10 months of work leading up to its recommendation.
All selectmen but Zullo voted to reject the GLPT’s proposed gift and the $7.6 million measure. Tuesday’s meeting also saw Selectmen Jonathan Torrant, Paul Parsons and Anne C. Dranginis state their opposition to the proposed gift and project.
“I don’t think the building is adequate for the needs of the town,” said Dranginis, a retired state judge who spent many years working in the courthouse.
Zullo, meanwhile, countered the criticism, saying he believes it has been proven that the building has enough space to meet the town’s needs.
Public comment at Tuesday’s meeting also focused on parking in the center of town and the effect a town hall in the old courthouse would have on parking availability. Jonathan Wilson, speaking for merchants and business owners in the town center, said business for everyone has been strong since the courthouse closed and more parking became available.
“We have a full and vibrant downtown,” Wilson said, noting that nearly all of the commercial space in the downtown is full.
Moving the town hall into the courthouse, Wilson said, could consume parking for business customers and for employees of businesses. Business would suffer as a result, he said.
“If you take the town offices and move them to the courthouse, you could potentially take up every parking spot,” Wilson said. “What you may end up with is a full courthouse and an empty Main Street.”
The GLPT didn’t ask merchants about parking issues before or after the courthouse project was proposed to the selectmen in November of 2017, according to Wilson.
“No one reached out to me or anyone, and we find that puzzling,” Wilson said.
Before a referendum is held, a parking study needs to be done, Wilson told selectmen. A parking analysis, Zullo said, would be the job of a building committee appointed by the selectmen if voters approve the proposed gift and project in the referendum.
If voters support the proposal, Zullo said, the current town hall would be demolished and the empty space that would be created could be used for parking.
Jeremy McKendry, owner of The Bakehouse in the former Litchfield jail, and Jeffrey Russak, owner of a jewelry business on West Street, echoed Wilson.
“No information about (the effect on) parking has been given to businesses and we don’t feel it’s fair to have a vote without everyone knowing,” McKendry said.
There are parking issues in the town center even with the courthouse closed, according to Russak, who said he worries about a potential long-term impact on the active, vibrant business community and on property values.
Betsy Glassman, a Litchfield resident and critic of the plan for the courthouse, said the building would make an ideal performing arts center that would bring people to town on nights and weekends, would provide a boost to restaurants and shops, and would generate tax revenue for the town. As a town hall, the former courthouse would be tax-exempt.
“It seems to me we are rushing this to a referendum,” Glassman said.
If voters approve the proposal, Paul said, the finance board would have to appropriate at least $50,000 to maintain the building until the start of a renovation project. Funding would cover heating oil, electricity and the cost of having town employees monitor the building on a daily basis.