April 24, 2014 11:29AM
By Andrew Ragali
WALLINGFORD — A saga that began in 1994 with the town’s purchase of the former American Legion building on South Main Street has come to an end.
After attempts to raze the building were blocked by the state and efforts over the past several years to sell or lease the building were unsuccessful, the Town Council approved the sale of 41 S. Main St. on Tuesday night to a local couple who hope to eventually make the dilapidated building their primary residence.
The council voted 5-2 to sell the building to Erin and Richard Benham for $35,000. In October, the council voted to approve the sale of the property to the couple, who live at 221 S. Whittlesey Ave. But in order for the town to sell property, a public hearing must be held before another vote from the Town Council. Few spoke at the public hearing Tuesday night.
“I’m not happy with the idea of the house being sold,” said Ray Rys, was a councilor when the town purchased the property in 1994. Rys said he was opposed to the sale because the property was purchased to expand town hall some day, and should be kept just in case. “I am opposed to it,” he added.
Joe Gouveia, who made multiple attempts to purchase the property, spoke Tuesday “in favor of the sale.”
Last year, Gouveia offered $75,000 for the building, but the sale fell through in February after it was found the building has a severed sewer line. Gouveia asked the town to fix the sewer line, but the town refused.
“I wish them all luck, they’re going to need it,” Gouveia said. He went on to state that his offer, $75,000, minus the $20,000 he requested to fix the sewer line, would have netted the town a $55,000 profit. “Now you’re selling for $35,000,” he said. “I’m OK with it, but I just wanted you to hear that.”
Tom Mezzei called the sale of the building to the Benham’s a “complete giveaway.”
“I think that building is too valuable and I think the town should keep it,” he said.
It will take up to a year and more than $400,000 to renovate the building, Richard Benham told the council in October. The couple said they plan to live on the first floor and convert the second floor into an apartment, while leaving the basement and attic vacant. In total, Benham said, they would need four parking spaces. Two spaces are available on the property. The other two parking spaces would be shared with Town Hall, which is located next door.
The building was constructed in the 1890s and was owned by Roger Austin, Wallingford’s tax collector. The town purchased the property for $190,000 with the thought of one day demolishing the building to expand parking at Town Hall. But in 2011 a New Haven Superior Court judge ruled the town cannot demolish the building because it is part of the downtown district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After the decision, the council voted to sell the building.
“The building has to be restored so it’s back to another piece of fine history that Wallingford has,” Richard Benham said in October. “It’s a shame that for years it’s been sitting there the way it is.”
Town Councilors Nick Economopoulos and Rosemary Rascati voted against the sale.
“I have been against selling this property from the beginning, and will be against it tonight,” Economopoulos said.
Local resident Gina Morgenstein predicted that the Benham’s will eventually end up selling the property, “but it will still look better than it does now,” she said. “I don’t think the homeowner can make that house look any worse than the town already has with its lack of upkeep.”
1890s: House at 41 S. Main St. is built, owned by Roger Austin, Wallingford’s tax collector.
1920: American Legion takes over building. 1988: Town begins talks with American Legion Post 73 to buy building. Post eventually rejects offer. December 1994: Dime Savings Bank forecloses on building’s mortgage. Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. makes the winning bid on the property at $190,000, outbidding five others. June 1995: Town Council turns down offer from New Haven firm Paul Pizzo Architects to lease the building. May 2002: Town Council votes to raze the building.
August 2002: Then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal files injunction on behalf of Connecticut Historical Commission to stop the town from demolishing the structure.
2008: Town Council rejects bids by Wallingford Public Access Association to buy the building for $10,000 and Gouveia Vineyards owner Joseph Gouveia, who offered $65,000 to turn it to office and residential use.
April 2010: Testimony begins in trial over whether town can raze the building.
February 2011: A New Haven Superior Court judge rules the town cannot demolish the building.
March 2011: Town Council votes to sell the building.
June 2011: Joseph Gouveia rescinds two bids on the property, one for $100,000 to turn the house into a wine and coffee lounge, and one for $45,000 to build offices and apartments.
July 2011: Town Council votes to sell American Legion Building to Rick Termini for $125,000. October 2011: Termini rescinds his bid.
November 2011: Council accepts Jeanine Connelly’s bid for $125,000 to turn the building into a bed and breakfast called The Hitching Post Inn.
July 2012: Connelly tells Council she won’t go forward with arrangement due to loss of a backer and anticipated employee.
November 2012: Council awards Joe Gouveia bid for $75,000 to turn building into first floor office with second- and third-floor apartments.
February 2013: Gouveia rescinds bid because an issue with the building’s sewer hookup could not be resolved.
Nov. 26, 2013: The Town Council votes 5-2 to approve a sale to Erin and Richard Benham for $35,000.