‘They Need To Be Separate’: Town Officials Weigh Future of Human Services’ Vine Cottage Home

Should their current base of operations be sold or otherwise offloaded, the municipal employees who work out of Vine Cottage on Main Street likely could not re-locate into Town Hall due to the sensitive nature of their jobs, officials say.

Vine Cottage (L) as seen from the new northern entrance to Town Hall. Credit: Michael Dinan

Members of the Human Services Department “feel very strongly that they need to be separate from the Town Hall because of confidentiality issues and the clients that they are dealing with,” according to Penny Young, co-chair of the Town Building Evaluation and Use Committee.

“And that is why they were not incorporated into this redesign of Town Hall,” Young said at the committee’s most recent meeting, held Sept. 28 at Town Hall. “So that needs to stay uppermost in our mind, is their function and their need for being separate from Town Hall.”

It isn’t clear just where the department, whose staff includes senior outreach and social workers, would move to if displaced from Vine Cottage. The gabled structure’s capital needs are wide-ranging and include: peeling paint with moisture trapped behind it, some shingles are cracked and deteriorating, replacement windows don’t fit their openings, shutters must be restored and screen and storm windows are deteriorating.

Members of the Town Council in March rejected a $550,000 plan to renovate Vine Cottage, saying they needed to understand the building’s long-term purpose first and whether it could be passably restored, and legally occupied, for less money.

Reporting back on the capital needs, physical plant and uses of 40-plus town-owned buildings in New Canaan (excluding school district buildings) is the job of the committee, co-chaired by Young and Amy Murphy Carroll. Its members have said they plan in a matter of weeks to supply a report with recommendations—or “suggested options,” as they’ve said—on the various structures.

Standing prominently opposite the fire house, Vine Cottage at 61 Main St. is located outside New Canaan’s Historic District.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the Human Services Department preserves the privacy of its clients, given that the Vine Cottage parking lot is wide open to anyone behind Town Hall or near its new major entrance—more so than the Town Hall lot itself.

Some $500,000 in federal (HUD) money went into renovating Vine Cottage initially, in the form of a Community Development Block Grant, committee members said at the meeting.

“There are obviously some constraints on those funds that were used for that building, so if you were moving the function to another town-owned building, we think those constraints might follow,” Young said.

Bill Oestmann, superintendent of buildings with the New Canaan Department of Public Works, said: “If you change the use of the building, it would have to be an approved use by them [HUD] or we would have to refund the money.”

“If you sell the building or you do something like that, the funds have to be put into separate account on the side until” the town receives “approval to use those funds,” he added.

Carroll noted that it’s a challenge to “repurpose a house” into a useful town department because of the way its space already is laid out.

Committee member Martin Skrelunas said that “the interior of the building is new,” noting that it is “ADA compliant” and has an updated sprinkler system.

3 thoughts on “‘They Need To Be Separate’: Town Officials Weigh Future of Human Services’ Vine Cottage Home

  1. It feels very different from Town Hall. The offices at Vine Cottage are cozy and intimate by comparison. There’s a more human scale to them, which I imagine is more appropriate for the nature of their work with clients.

  2. I totally agree on privacy and confidentiality , but I disagree on keeping them separate. It seems New Canaan is the only Human Services in its own building. There are only 3 to 4 employees located there. Why this big house? The Town of Darien, City of Stamford, City of Norwalk etc Human Services are all located in the same building as their other departments. What makes us so special and what about the confidentiality in these towns..are they in violation? I am sure some rooms can be made with doors that can be shut down in the lower level of Town Hall for less then $550,000 plus renovating the Vine Cottage. Also, I find it a little disturbing when I drive thru the Town Hall parking lot to see Human Services leaving envelopes on their “cork board” outside the door with their clients names on them! what about that privacy? and I bet that if you visit this department on a Friday, they are rarely there! Why is this?

  3. Vine Cottage is a charming building, and I think it is the place the Human Services Department would like to stay at, but at what cost? To put in an excess of $500K into “fixing” it is one thing, but what about the costs of maintaining it. How much is heat? air conditioning? snow removal? electric? computer hook ups? water? cleaning? insurance? painting? regular maintenance? All those costs will be removed if they are relocated into Town Hall.
    I respectfully disagree that confidentiality was the reason why they were not incorporated into the plans for Town Hall. They had a place that they liked and therefore there was no reason to be included, same as the Recreation Department.
    Vine Cottage is difficult to get into to for us elderly. Either we have to walk all around the building to the ramp or go up the stairs.
    Confidentiality seems to be a New Canaan issue, in addition to the list above, Ridgefield, Westport and Wilton’s Social Services are all in the same buildings as other municipal offices. At Vine Cottage anyone can be seen going in or coming out from Town Hall. It is a good argument for Human Services to use because they don’t want to be in Town Hall. If they were in Town Hall they would be held to same standards as other employees in Town.

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