Council to vote on property buy

The Trumbull Town Council on Monday will vote on the purchase of two homes on Old Church Hill Road, across the street from the library. Buying the properties, at 85 and 93 Church Hill Road, would “expand the campus” of the Town Hall/library and could allow for future development that may include additional library parking, an access point to the Pequonnock River Trail or a community center.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said First Selectman Tim Herbst on Tuesday, the day after the council’s Legislation and Administration Committee recommended the purchase. Herbst cited the possibility of adding up to 100 parking spaces for the library and adding an access point to the trail, which is used by about 6,000 hikers, bicyclists and skaters each week.

“The Taits Mill Road entrance is jammed all the time, with all the spots full and people parking along the road in front of the houses,” he said. Currently, the town is upgrading access there, but the work will only add a few parking spots, Herbst said.

The town also is considering purchasing 77 Church Hill Road and 2 South Edgewood, but those parcels are not part of Monday’s vote.

Democratic leaders, including Council Minority Leader Mary Beth Thornton, Town Committee Chairman Tom Kelly and the Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman and Vice-chairman, Fred Garrity and Tony Silber, have voiced opposition to the plan based on cost, the potential impact to the South Edgewood Road neighborhood and the seemingly rushed way the plan has been introduced and pushed forward.

Garrity released a statement to the Times (full text here) expressing his unhappiness.

“In all my years, I have not been as emotionally stricken for a resident as I was at our last Special Trumbull P&Z meeting on July 20, 2016, who expressed great concern for the town’s pressured Land Acquisition process,” Garrity wrote. “The resident said she was afraid of what would happen and didn’t know what to do, because when she was at a meeting in Town Hall, with a person she was afraid to name (not the Economic Development Director), she was told, ‘We would never want to go down the road of eminent domain!’ She was certain that it was presented as a veiled threat to take her home.” 

Silber also expressed dissatisfaction writing of the proposed purchase. “There is no plan. There's just a rushed willingness to risk damaging a residential neighborhood, all with minimum community awareness and participation. Absent a comprehensive facilities plan, absent appropriate community input, this is just ad-libbing. It's improv. It's hasty, it's risky and it's expensive.”

Economic Development Director Rina Bakalar has had several meetings with the resident, who owns 77 Church Hill Road. The woman had expressed concern about eminent domain, said the woman’s concerns were a misunderstanding that has since been cleared up.

According to Bakalar’s staff report on the property acquisitions, she had spoken to the woman and explained that the town was negotiating with three of her neighbors and gauging her interest in selling her home. She came to Town Hall that evening and met with Herbst, a meeting Bakalar said both parties described as cordial. The homeowner then asked for time to consider the proposal.

Bakalar said the homeowner’s concerns expressed at the P&Z meeting were a surprise and that she spoke to her following the meeting.

“She … admitted she was a bit scared and not sure of her options,” Bakalar wrote. “I reiterated that there was absolutely no pressure for her to sell her property.”

The two concluded their conversation with the homeowner requesting time to think through her needs and perhaps craft a counter offer.

“I told her to contact me with any questions or concerns. We hugged and she left,” Bakalar wrote.

Herbst affirmed that the ball was in the homeowner’s court, saying the town would “under no circumstances” use eminent domain.

Herbst and Thornton also exchanged words after Thornton criticized the way the town had handled negotiations. Herbst said Thornton had been positive about the plan during an executive session before reversing her position.

“Her criticism and opposition to acquiring these properties today is disheartening and disingenuous,” Herbst said. “This should not be a partisan issue – we must be better than this.”

Thornton said her seeming change of opinion was based on new information.

“At least one homeowner feels they are being intimidated to sell when they are uncomfortable in doing so,” Thornton said. “I would like to go into further detail of what was discussed in this particular meeting, but it was done in executive session which means we are legally bound to never publicly discuss what has been stated.” Full text of both statements is available online.

The land buy plan originated in May when Luigi Cammarota, owner of 97 Church Hill Road, approached the town about selling his property to the town. During a follow-up visit Bakalar discovered that 85 Church Hill Road was also on the market and Bakalar and Herbst decided to see if the owner of 93 Church Hill Road, between the two other plots, was interested in selling.

The town has since come to terms on the 85 and 93 Church Hill Road properties. The owners of 77 Church Hill and 2 South Edgewood are still weighing their options. Negotiations for 97 Church Hill Road broke off over a disagreement in the property’s value.