New Milford sells town building despite concerns over lack of town meeting

Photo of Katrina Koerting
25 Church Street, New Milford Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.

25 Church Street, New Milford Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.

Carol Kaliff / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW MILFORD — An empty building soon will return to the tax rolls after the Town Council, in a split vote Monday, approved the sale of 25 Church Street for nearly $295,000.

While councilmembers largely supported the sale, some opposed using an executive order to do it because it bypassed the town meeting required by the town charter.

“I know we’re in new times, but that doesn’t mean we can scuttle our town charter,” Councilman David Lawson said.

Talk of selling the building began several years ago under then Mayor David Gronbach. This offer from David and Scott Benincasa came in early March, just before the coronavirus outbreak led businesses and town offices to temporarily close.

The Benincasas plan to put in 10 to 20 high-end apartments, Mayor Pete Bass said. Adding housing in downtown has been highlighted as a need in recent market studies.

When Bass was elected, he asked the Facilities Utilization Committee to look at the building, along with the other town buildings to determine the best uses and actual costs for them.

New Milford’s charter requires any town building sales to be decided at a town meeting.

Gov. Ned Lamont, however, issued an executive order earlier this year allowing local boards to make decisions since town meetings and, at the time referendums, weren’t allowed out of concerns of spreading the coronavirus. It largely applied to passing budgets, which needed to be done before the new fiscal year started in July.

Some council members questioned if this sale was an emergency and needed to keep the town operating. Council members Lawson, Mary Jane Lundgren and Michael Nahom opposed the sale for this reason.

“I don’t see the urgency, the necessity or the emergency in all of it,” Lawson said.

Nahom said the town, state and nation were using the emergency to sidestep too many things.

The health director has said he wouldn’t approve an indoor meeting that exceeded 25 people based on coronavirus conditions, which doesn’t meet the requirements needed for a town meeting, Town Attorney Randy DiBella said.

“He’s very cautious, as he should be because he doesn’t want anyone to get sick,” DiBella said.

He said they couldn’t have a virtual town meeting either because the registrars couldn’t control who was on it and ensure that everyone was a registered New Milford voter. He suggested a hybrid plan that would allow a public hearing for residents to comment before Town Council voted. Some council members suggested adding it to the Nov. 3 ballot.

Other council members said they weren’t sure they would get a better offer than the $295,000, which is the property’s appraised value. They worried the Benincasas would back out if they had to wait much longer and they wanted to get the building back on the tax rolls. They also said the public had a chance to comment speak about the sale during Monday’s public comment, and the public elected them to make decisions to keep the town going.

Constructed in 1920, the building has nearly 4,000 square feet of livable space. The town bought it in 2001, according to the town’s property records.

On Monday, councilmembers Douglas Skelly, Michael Gold, Chris Cosgrove, Walter Bayer and Katy Francis approved the sale.

“I think we should move forward and get it done,” Gold said.

This isn’t the first disagreement regarding the building. It drew some controversy because Gronbach moved Gallery 25 out of the space and into the old railroad station. He considered moving Housatonic Probate Court there in 2016, providing more space for the court, but the court instead moved to the old parks and recreation building, leaving the building open.

A then-councilman bid on the property, and the ethics commission ruled he didn’t violate the town’s ethics code.