Choate considers options for new admissions building in Wallingford

WALLINGFORD — Choate Rosemary Hall officials are mulling options after the Zoning Board of Appeals denied its request for a setback variance for a new building at the intersection of North Elm and Christian streets that would house the Admissions Department and offer a gateway to the campus.

The denial means the private school must either rework the application for the site or find an alternative site on its expansive campus for a department school officials say has outgrown its space in another building that also houses other offices.

They haven't yet decided what the next move will be, said Choate Chief Communications Officer Alison J. Cady.

"We are in conversations on campus about that now,” Cady said. “We have to work through the options with the information we have now.”

The school was first scheduled to go before the board in July but that was continued to the September meeting because the board did not meet in August. Currently the admissions office uses space in another building that has grown too small for its needs, school officials said, and they want to build a new building that would be used by the Admissions Department as a welcome center for prospective students and their parents.

The plans featured underground parking that would allow the bulk of the site to remain green. And while the building would be closer to the street than the regulations allowed, it would fit in with many of the surrounding buildings that also are situated close to the road, as was the norm years ago when they were built.

“We will continue working on this because it’s so fundamental to our work,” Cady said. “We are hoping to have improved facilities not only for the staff but for the families that come to look at the school.”

Choate Rosemary Hall offers programs for students in ninth through 12th grade, and has a post-graduate program for high school graduates who need a transitional year before entering college. The school has 867 students, of whom about 73% live on campus.

To attract students, the school needs a dedicated admissions building, officials said, and they determined the site at the corner of North Elm and Christian streets is best suited for that purpose. Before the school could go before the Planning and Zoning Commission, it needed the Zoning Board of Appeals variance regarding setbacks from the road that according to the plans would technically fall short of town regulations.

But the board found there was no hardship that warranted a variance and denied the application, a result foreshadowed minutes earlier when board Chairman Joe Rusczek asked if there was anyone wanting to speak in favor of the application and was greeted with silence. But when he asked if there was anyone who wanted to speak against the application, several residents approached the microphones to outline why they thought the application should be denied.

“I think it’s important for the board to recognize that at several points during their presentation, they did indicate that they can move the building,” said Robin Hettrick of 412 Williams Road. “It just doesn’t go with the way they want it to go and that means that there is not a hardship with the land itself. A hardship with the land itself means you cannot remediate it without the variance.”

“I don’t agree with the hardship and I don’t agree with having the variance,” said Board of Education member Mike Votto, himself an educator who worked at Choate for 15 years. “I want to say my wife’s family has a very close relationship with Choate Rosemary Hall since 1961 and this is very difficult for me to reject anything that Choate wants to do.”

“I have been a defender of Choate because I love the school and I think they do bring something to this town — it is a magnificent place,” he said, “but I think at this point it’s becoming abusive. and it’s very hard for me to say that. This is difficult.

“I think the hardship is going to cause more hardship for the people who live in that area,” he told the board.


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