Though the Town Council on Wednesday night once again raised the specter of the “Mead Park Brick Barn” and its pending demolition, some members of the legislative body said their ongoing discussion only offers the false hope that it can be spared the wrecking ball.
During a meeting attended by preservationists who have been working for months on a plan to preserve the century-old structure on Richmond Hill Road, Councilman Tom Butterworth noted that the Council already voted on an appropriation of demo funds, and said the difficulty in having a meaningful conversations now is that the “process” of municipal government is underway.
“We have a process in our government and if you want to look at what the implications of that are, look at the people here tonight that we are misleading by having this discussion,” Butterworth said at the meeting, held in Town Hall.
“It’s fine for us: We have no skin in the game on this anymore. We voted. We are done. If somebody can come up with a way to revive this issue and put it in some way so that the Town Council has jurisdiction, please bring it on. Let’s hear it. But all we are doing now is just giving [First Selectman] Kevin [Moynihan] a lecture on changing his mind about something that is his to decide. And we are misleading people that our talking about this issue tonight is keeping it alive. It’s not. It’s misleading. We ought to follow process. It belongs with the Board of Selectmen.”
Yet the selectmen are themselves divided on what to do about the former Standard Oil fuel depot.
Though Moynihan has vowed to have the Brick Barn razed, his fellow selectmen last month said members of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance deserve to demonstrate that they have the wherewithal to restore and maintain the structure. The selectmen decided to forgo voting on contracts to demolish the building and dispose of its remains—seemingly necessary steps to get rid of it. During the meeting, Selectman Nick Williams intimated that the desire of some to knock down the Brick Barn while favoring other preservation projects—for example, at Waveny House, centerpiece of the one-time Lapham estate—belies a kind of snobbery about whose local history is worth saving (to say nothing of the not-so-distant forefathers of those making such determinations).
Councilman Penny Young called bringing up the topic of the Brick Barn again “somewhat of a fool’s errand,” noting that the Town Council has voted in the past to see it razed.
“I think that we would not appreciate being in the position of having our votes nullified again,” Young said. (Earlier in the meeting, while discussing another town-owned antique—Vine Cottage—Young had said, “I want the community to understand that we indeed are sensitive to historic preservation,” drawing muffled guffaws from the preservationists in attendance.)
Town Council Chairman John Engel noted that a lawyer from the town attorney’s firm put forth an opinion that the Town Council cannot “claw back an appropriation for the demolition” of the Brick Barn. Though some are seeking to challenge that view and get a second opinion, Engel said, “That is where we are now.”
“It is a town attorney opinion that this is in the hands of the Board of Selectmen at this time.”
Councilman Joe Paladino said the matter has “become very, very personal to people” and that although he himself has no strong feeling for the Brick Barn, “you have a group that is passionate about doing something that the town has not done for the last 25 years?”
“Why spend $65,000 to knock it down?” Paladino said.
Councilman Cristina A. Ross said the efforts of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance “emphasize the fact that they are interested in saving the Barn, that they have options, they have put together a consultant’s estimate on the cost of construction project.”
“They also have done some fundraising online from local donors and they have some commitments from board members as to investing in the project,” Ross said. The NCPA also has “verbal commitments from the state” and has received grants in the past for such work.
“I think we are making a mistake by not considering their efforts and listening to what they are trying to do,” Ross said.
Ross also referred to a May meeting of the Town Council where members voted 6-6 on a motion to remove the $65,000 in demolition funds from a larger bonding package—a tie broken by Moynihan, who voted against the motion and thus advanced the demolition.
“When the appropriation was voted on, it was with the caveat to the first selectman when he cast the deciding vote to demolish the building, that he would work with any interested party that would or could come forward with a use or a solution,” Ross said. Though Ross said she wasn’t asking anyone to rescind their vote from that meeting, “another part to the vote has not been addressed,” she said.
Minutes from the meeting note only that in casting his tie-breaking vote, “Mr. Moynihan added that he is open to receiving a credible plan within a reasonable time” for the Brick Barn. A look at the Town Council’s discussion (see the video here from about 1:55:50 to 2:17:00) shows that it was more comprehensive.
Councilman Jim Kucharczyk during a discussion of the motion had said, “I would vote that we approve the funds and, Kevin, if a credible offer comes back for the use of that barn, then we don’t tear it down.”
Moynihan moments before casting his tie-breaking vote had said, “I am totally in favor of giving a reasonable amount of time but I think the building should be taken down unless there is a credible plan.”
Engel on Wednesday night said that the town is “in uncharted territory” with respect to the Brick Barn demolition.
“We have been at this for many years and right now the Board of Selectmen is split on the issue, and it is a debate with them, and that is what we know,” he said.
The selectmen are scheduled to meet Tuesday and it isn’t clear whether the contracts for the demolition of the Brick Barn will come before the Board again. The agenda hasn’t been prepared yet.