Litchfield News

Selectmen turn down proposal for former courthouse (11-07-18)

Selectman Paul Parsons expresses his opposition to the proposed use of the former Litchfield County courthouse as a town hall during a Board of Selectmen meeting on Tuesday. BZ photos
Litchfield voters will consider a $9.2 million plan to build a new town hall after the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday rejected the Greater Litchfield Preservation Trust's offer of the former Litchfield County courthouse for use as a town hall.
Selectmen voted 4-1 not to accept the gift and schedule a referendum on a proposal to repurpose the building as a town hall at a cost of up to $7.6 million. Voting in opposition were First Selectman Leo Paul Jr. and Selectmen Anne C. Dranginis, Jonathan Torrant and Paul Parsons.
Selectman Jeffrey Zullo cast the vote in favor. Zullo is chairman of the town hall review committee, which after 10 months of work recommended to the board the option of repurposing the old courthouse. Prior to the board's vote, Zullo worked to counter claims by his colleagues that the old courthouse is not the best option for a new town hall.
"The outcome of the town hall review committee should be supported," Zullo said. "At $7.6 million, you would get a completely functional building for years. It is the best option and would create a centerpiece for the town."
The board's opposition to the plan, Zullo said, is an insult to the town hall review committee and the amount of work it put in over the past 10 months. 
"You wanted input and you got it, and you're ignoring that if you (vote against the plan)," Zullo said. "I don't see what the objections are. You have no valid argument against it."
Selectmen, Paul said, were not bound to accepting the committee's recommendation.
"The board has a right to decide whether or not to follow the recommendation of the committee," Paul said. "I don't believe that by doing that we are in any way insulting or diminishing the work of the committee."
Instead of considering the plan for the former courthouse, voters will weigh the $9.2 million plan to build a new town hall on the lot behind Town Hall. The selectmen's vote to bring the more expensive option to a referendum was 3-2, with Zullo and Dranginis voting in opposition. The town hall review committee studied the $9.2 million plan but ruled out recommending it because of the cost.
A referendum is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 4.
Paul, Torrant and Parsons all said they support the idea of a new town hall. The cost to taxpayers of funding a new town hall over a 15-year bonding period wouldn't be noticeably more than the cost to fund the plan for the courthouse. With long-term costs being relatively equal, the proposal to build a new town hall makes more sense, according to Torrant.
"A new town hall with geothermal heating and other modern features would be a far better option," Torrant said. 
According to Zullo, however, the $9.2 million plan poses problems.
"I don't think it's a good design and it lacks growth potential," Zullo said. "It will fail at a referendum, I believe."
Dranginis said she doesn't believe the $9.2 million plan is adequate to meet the needs of the town.
Selectmen also had problems with conditions the GLPT put on the proposed gift of the courthouse, among them a restriction limiting the building to use as a town hall. The board wanted no conditions attached to the gift, and got its way on Tuesday when the restriction regarding use was removed. Other conditions were removed last week. With the conditions lifted, the GLPT was sure selectmen would accept the gift.
"They got what they wanted and they walked away from it," GLPT President Perley Grimes said of the selectmen. "It's stupid."
Had the board been aware of the conditions when the GLPT proposed its gift in November 2017, it would likely have not authorized the town hall review committee to study the $7.6 million plan, accrording to Paul.
"I was agreeable to the courthouse plan until we learned of the conditions," Paul said. "I now think the best option is a new building."
Below, Selectman Anne C. Dranginis explains her reasons for opposing use of the former Litchfield County courthouse as a town hall.

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