SOUTHINGTON — Town councilors have decided to take a step back and reconsider a proposal for senior housing at the former Board of Education building on Beecher Street after residents strongly opposed the idea.
At the council’s meeting Monday night, nine residents spoke against the proposed project and one in favor. A petition with more than 100 signatures against the sale was also given to the council.
Some longtime residents of the area said they were concerned it would change the character of the neighborhood and that the 30 to 38 units being proposed were too much. At least 30 percent of the units would be classified as affordable under the plan.
Sue Wojenski of 19 Williams St., which is off Beecher Street, said she didn’t want a “humongous building” in the neighborhood and was concerned about traffic.
“I would rather see five or six homes,” Wojenski said. “We don’t have an objection to senior housing per se, but in this neighborhood we all have single or double homes.”
Republicans have been in favor of the proposed $220,000 sale of 49 Beecher St. to Beecher St. LLC for senior housing while Democrats have been opposed, saying the town-owned building is worth more money than the current offer.
The 102-year-old building has an appraised value of $802,490. It used to be a school and later housed the Board of Education offices. Republicans have said the appraisal is deceptive because the property has problems, including asbestos and an underground oil tank that may need to be removed. Democrats have said they had hoped to go out to bid again to get a better price.
Diana McDougal, the town’s real estate agent, has said she wasn’t surprised by the selling price of $220,000 because of the many challenges with the building.
After hearing from the public Monday, the council unanimously voted to postpone action on the sale of the building and revisit it.
“The public has spoken and they let us know their opinion on it and we respect their opinion,” said Republican Town Council Chairman John Dobbins.
Councilor Dawn Miceli, a Democrat, has been against the project since the start and thinks the council needs to go “back to the drawing board” to find another use for the building. Since it could be another year before the sale is officially closed as the developer seeks state financial aid that may not be available until July 2014, Miceli said there shouldn’t be a rush to make the decision and the council should consider going back out to bid.
“There’s so much potential, I don’t see what the hurry is,” she said. “We need to slow down and think about what we’re doing. The people own that building; they have a right to voice their opinion.”
Councilor John Barry, a Democrat, had supported senior housing for the building, but through the Southington Housing Authority, not a for-profit company. He changed his mind after the hearing.
“After last night listening to the neighborhood not in favor of this density of housing, I agree with them,” Barry said. “That was too high of a density.”
Ralph Monti, one of the developers of Beecher St. LLC, was present at the council meeting to answer questions. He did not show any architectural sketches of what the building could look like, which bothered Wojenski and Catherine Miceli as well as Republican Councilor Cheryl Lounsbury.
“It made me decide I had to get another look at the issue,” Lounsbury said. “What my opinion is right now, I’m not sure, but one thing that would have helped me decide was if the business developer had given us a visual.”
“What is in the best interest of Southington residents needs to be balanced with the interest of the neighborhood,” said council Vice Chairman Pete Romano, a Republican.
Romano said he has reconsidered looking at the details for the building again, but hasn’t made up his mind on the proposal.
During the public hearing Monday a resident asked a question about Councilor Louis Martocchio’s involvement with the sale, saying it was a potential conflict of interest. It sparked an argument between councilors and town staff that became heated.
Martocchio, a Republican, is the agent for Beecher St. LLC and the developers, William Martin, of Watertown, and Monti, of Wolcott, have been clients of his for 10 years. Once he found out they were interested in the property, Martocchio recused himself from all council discussions on the matter, according to Town Attorney Mark Sciota.
Barry said Monday that the facts of Martocchio’s involvement weren’t being represented clearly, which Sciota denied.
“Any time this issue was brought up, he was not there,” Sciota said.
“In a pure, pure, pure technical sense there was a discussion about the property very early on that I participated in and it was my request and the sole purpose was to tell them why I would be recusing myself,” Martocchio said Monday.
“I stand by what I said last night,” Barry said Tuesday. “I did not accuse (Martocchio) of any wrongdoing.”
After the public hearing portion of the meeting closed, an exchange between Barry and Martocchio became contentious. The two councilors argued and expletives could be heard by the audience. Romano then became involved in the argument with Barry and Sciota led the three councilors into a side conference room with Town Manager Garry Brumback to mediate.
“It got a little out of control,” Wojenski said. “I was thinking, ‘oh boy, what’s going to happen here. I thought that was a little over the top.’”
Martocchio said he was offended by Barry’s comments and confronted him. Romano declined to comment on the exchange.
Dobbins said he has not made a decision yet if the property will be put on the agenda for discussion at Sept. 30.