Citing Need for Decision on Future Use, Finance Board Puts Off $50,000 Study of Former Outback Building

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Saying that the town first must decide how the building will be used, members of New Canaan’s funding bodies decided last week to put off a vote on $50,000 in studies that would be needed in order to make repairs and code-compliant upgrades to the former Outback Teen Center building.

It’s too early to discuss an investment in architectural and engineering plans for what some now call the ‘Town Hall Annex’ when its future use remains unclear, Board of Finance members Todd Lavieri and George Blauvelt said at the group’s regular meeting, held Tuesday at Town Hall.

Town Councilman Steve Karl voiced that thought during the legislative body’s regular meeting the following night.

“This is about a building and about a hardship, basically, that the town inherited—we inherited what amounts to a dilapidated barn and we need to figure out what is a post-and-beam barn that is 17 years old with two bathrooms, how much is a couple of bathrooms and a barn worth?” Karl said at the meeting, held at Town Hall.

“And there is no property underneath it, because it’s the town’s property. So what is that actual barn worth? And if you put a number on it, is it $250,000? Is it $350,000? Is it $450,000? Pick a number. It is already less than $550,000 to put an elevator in there. So that is where the taxpayer is going to say, ‘Hey guys, what exactly are you doing?’ So that is where we need to start the conversation, I think.”

Karl noted that an especially tight budgeting season already is underway in New Canaan where the town is “going to be searching under every rock” for the likes of $50,000 in savings. He added that one proposal for the former Outback, home for a new alternative high school program serving students with specific health challenges—a proposal backed by a selectmen-appointed committee—appears to have emerged very quickly.

“Six months ago if you had told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to open another school in New Canaan?’ I would have said, ‘What? A school? Another school in New Canaan?’ I just don’t’ see it. But let’s get back to the building—the building, the building, the building. We just inherited this barn. What are we going to do with it? What is it worth? I am not taking knocking it down off the table. I am actually closer there than I am anywhere else, quite frankly.”

In addition to the alternative high school proposal—which emerged in a district spending plan for next year that Superintendent Dr. Bryan Luizzi has presented, and would replace an existing afternoon program—the Town Council is reviewing options such as leasing, selling or demolishing the building.

Public Works Director Tiger Mann told the finance board that the building needs an estimated $400,000 in repairs and upgrades to make it ADA-compliant. Repairs would include building ramps that lead into the building, creating accessible routes into its classrooms, and making code-compliant repairs to the elevator.

Mann said that the $50,000 the department is requesting would be used to bring in DiBlasi Associates, PC, a structural engineering company, to assess the needs of the building before the department seeks estimates on repair costs. He added that the building has become an “attractive nuisance” to the town because local teens are often caught trespassing, resulting in minimal damage to the building’s interior. “If we don’t do this, we can’t do anything with the building,” he said.

Finance board member Colleen Baldwin said that conducting any repairs to the building before the town decides what it will do with it is risky.

“You’ve got a plan and then you make [the building] ADA-compliant. You do the repairs, and then, let’s say, you use it for an alternative program, and that money gets thrown out because the building has to be rebuilt [to further accommodate the program],” she said. “So, I feel like, ‘Why would we do this right now?’ If the building’s secure and no one’s in it, why wouldn’t we wait?”

Mann stressed that the plans would only involve structural repairs and compliance issues that would still exist no matter who took over the building. “What we’re looking to do is strictly take care of the ADA-compliance issues,” he said. “The repairs that are needed are just on the shell of the building. There are certain aspects of the building that would not be changed.”

Blauvelt said he agreed with Mann’s perspective, but still questioned the timing. “What you’re saying makes sense, but does it make sense now?” he asked. “Why are we going to spend $50,000 on making the building ADA-compliant if, in fact, say, six months from now, somebody walks in and says, ‘I want to buy this building right now’?”

Finance board member Amy Murphy Carroll pointed out that there’s also an ongoing cost to letting the building sit without any doing any code-compliance repairs. She referred to the $25,000 in estimated upfront costs to keep the building structurally sound, which she discussed earlier this month during a Town Council subcommittee meeting about the alternative high school program proposal, as well as the monthly costs to keep the building’s utilities on.

Carroll also took issue with the town’s pattern of allowing buildings to remain vacant and eventually dilapidate before deciding to act. “We have this building now that we didn’t really expect to own, but it became ours under the original agreement, and it’s been sitting there and there’s been this big contentious [issue] about what to do with it,” she said.

“Right now, there’s a couple of options. We can either let it sit there and spend the $25,000 to keep the utilities on, we can tear it down, which costs about $200,000, we can move it…or we can put it to good use and support this plan for an alternative high school,” she continued. “In some way, we have to decide to do something or not. If the town is going to consider keeping this building, we’re going to have to do this study to figure how you fix it.”

Lavieri, Board of Finance chairman, also took issue with the fact that Mann only offered one estimate for the project instead of three—an effort he said he’d like to see the department make with all proposals in the future. Mann replied that over the last 20 years, the department hasn’t once asked professional companies to submit bids.

“I understand that, but it’s $50,000,” Lavieri replied. “Can someone do it for $42,000? I mean, it’s not our money, right? So, I think we should take a little bit of time and get extra bids to take a look at what others can do.”

Mann agreed to present two more proposals as opposed to bids as a compromise. He added that his main goal for presenting the proposal was to “get ahead of things” so that that building would be ready (or close to ready) to receive students to the new alternative school program either this fall or the following year.

The board agreed to table the discussion and not vote on the project until Mann presents two additional project estimates.

—Michael Dinan contributed to this report

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