For four months of Sundays, an evangelical Christian church has the Board of Selectmen’s blessing to rent for weekly worship services the town-owned auditorium that The Ridgefield Playhouse operates as an performing arts center.
“Personally, I don’t have an issue with a religious organization asking to lease a town facility for a specified period of time, and in this case it would be from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said this week.
After a long and contentious discussion last Wednesday, the Board of Selectmen voted 4-to-1 to authorize the first selectman to sign-off on an application by The Ridgefield Playhouse, seeking Planning and Zoning Commission approval for use of the auditorium Sunday mornings by the Bethel-based Walnut Hill Community Church.
Board of Finance member Marty Heiser, an elder of the church who attended the selectmen’s meeting, said this week that having Walnut Hill in Ridgefield would be a good thing for the 300 or so Ridgefield families who attend the church’s services in Bethel.
Mr. Heiser cited “the positive element of having a faith community as part of the fabric of your town, you have people who are there when there’s a crisis in your family — like the loss of a child, difficulty at work, strains on a marriage.”
The Playhouse leases the old high school auditorium from the town for $1 a year and hosts a wide variety of performing arts and entertainment acts there. If the religious services are allowed, the Playhouse expects to collect $500 a week rent from the church.
The selectmen agreed to the Playhouse’s plan subject to four conditions:
• The Parks and Recreation Commission must review the plans and confirm that Sunday morning services won’t create a parking conflict with long-standing use of the old high school fields for various sports on Sundays;
• The church must agree to relocate Sunday services occasionally when they do conflict with another use of the Playhouse space;
• The church’s use of the space doesn’t result in any additional expense to the town, as building owner;
• And that the lease be from Sept. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2013 — a temporary arrangement.
“The purpose of doing this according to church leaders is to explore the viability of a more permanent location in Ridgefield,” Mr. Marconi said.
With 300 member families in Ridgefield, Mr. Heiser said, “there seems to be enough interest in the Town of Ridgefield to try to have a venue where you could have service on Sunday morning.”
At first the church had also sought to lease rooms in the town hall annex, next door to the Playhouse, for Sunday school. But Mr. Marconi said employees who work in the annex offices during the week were uncomfortable with that idea, and the selectmen didn’t give it much consideration.
It was only after exhaustively arguing over a variety of issues — the original lease’s intent, parking conflicts with sports groups, potential hidden costs to the town — that the selectmen backed the plan.
“I have problems with the concept of letting this property to Walnut Hill,” said Selectwoman Barbara Manners, who cast the dissenting vote.
Years ago Ms. Manners had the original vision of a town performing arts center, and championed the creation of The Playhouse in what was then an abandoned auditorium in the old high school building.
The lease envisioned the creation of “a community performing arts center” that would use the auditorium for events such as “plays, performances, films,” she said. “This lease took a long time to negotiate… It was very specifically designed for the performing arts.”
She added, “At no time did we talk about other uses.”
Selectwoman Di Masters favored a less exacting interpretation of the lease, noting that events which don’t fit Ms. Manners’ description already take place there, such as the Annual Town Meeting, National Charity League gatherings, moving up ceremonies for Girl Scouts, and League of Women Voters candidates forums.
She said the board should focus instead on logistical issues, like parking.
“What does it interfere with? Does it fit in?” she said.
Selectman Andy Bodner worried about the town’s costs as landlord. “We, for $1 a year, maintain that building,” he said.
Mr. Marconi noted that the Venus Municipal Building, as the old high school is now called, covered its maintenance costs with cumulative income from various leases — to Chef’s Warehouse, the RVNA, and other tenants.
“Does it pay for itself? Absolutely. But taken altogether — not The Playhouse,” he said.
Playhouse Executive Director Allison Stockel tried to head off the idea that the town could somehow claim rental income from events at Playhouse that did not fit the strict “performing arts” definition in its lease.
“So, when the League of Women Voters, when they rent from us, that should go to the town?” she asked.
Also at the meeting was a small group from Walnut Hill, including Adam DePasquale, one its pastors. He grew up in Ridgefield, graduated from RHS, and would run the Ridgefield programs.
Based in Bethel since 1996, Walnut Hill also has locations in Waterbury, Seymour, Derby and Litchfield.
Looking back on the meeting this week, Mr. Heiser took a diplomatic tone.
“My feeling was it was a candid and open discussion about the needs of the town and ability to accommodate this organization at the Ridgefield Playhouse,” he said. “I felt as if all different angles were looked at and I very much appreciate the Board of Selectmen welcoming the opportunity for the church to have service there Sunday mornings. I believe that the next step, is to go before P&Z.
Mr. Heiser, a Walnut Hill member since 2006, recalled the first service he’d attended there. The pastor, Clive Calver, had worked with the World Relief organization in Bangladesh. He was trying to get church members to donate money to buy a brothel in the impoverished nation.
“He could get these women out of the life of prostitution, and get these women vocational training,” Mr. Heiser said. “I thought to myself: ‘This is some church.’ ”
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, he went down there with a group of about 30 men from the church who had construction-related skills to rebuild a church. “That really solidified me to the fellowship at Walnut Hill, that they were really putting their Christian faith into action,” Mr. Heiser said.
“It’s basically just evangelical Christian church. There’s no particular political leaning. We just believe in the basic tenants of orthodox Christianity,” he said.
“I just think Walnut Hill wants to be a good neighbor in this town, and be a help, a hope and blessing.”