Wallingford neighbors take issue with Choate attorney’s comment

WALLINGFORD - Residents living around Choate Rosemary Hall were recently upset by comments one of the school's attorneys made before the Inland Wetlands Commission this month, which they say is indicative of a larger problem between the school and its neighbors.

At the commission's Dec. 7 meeting, Choate attorney Dennis Ceneviva made a comment that 85 invitations had gone out to neighbors to attend a meeting on the application, but the response "wasn't great." It was that comment that riled some neighbors, who said Ceneviva mischaracterized the intent of the meeting, which was scheduled for early morning.

The invitation came from Cheryl Madden, the school's new Parent and Community Relations Manager. She described the get-together on Dec. 7 from 7:30 to 9 a.m.as "a casual open house" with no mention of the admissions building application. She also invited anyone not able to attend to reach out to her personally.

Some neighbors were offended at Ceneviva's comment about the low response, saying that had the meeting detailed that the application would be discussed, and held at a more appropriate time, the turnout would have been much greater.

Chief Communications Officer Alison Cady said the school has a community relations position specifically to address the concerns of neighbors living around the campus.

"For the past decade Choate Rosemary Hall has had a community relations position dedicated to supporting Choate’s relationship with Wallingford and the school’s neighbors," Cady said. “It has been our policy to inform any abutting neighbor impacted about upcoming projects in accordance with each approval board’s specifications. In addition to the formal notification, neighbors have been directed to a Choate contact to answer questions about each specific project, or concerns in general. 

In addition to required notices, school officials will meet with or answer questions of neighbors, she said, which has led to communications including group meetings, individual conversations, phone calls, and emails.  

"As recently as this past Thursday I had a call with a neighbor, and on Dec. 9, I sat down with another neighbor and answered questions that person had," she said. “This is a regular occurrence." 

Three neighbors attended the Dec. 7 meeting, and Madden connected with several others by phone and email, Cady said. "The agenda was intended to be a meet and greet, but since those in attendance were interested in the admission building project, we spoke about the project, walked them through the details of the plan, and shared renderings of the building," she said. 

Neighbor Phil Youker said as a teacher, there was no way he could attend a 7:30 a.m. weekday meeting like that and was upset at the Ceneviva's characterization that turnout was light because of a lack of interest on the part of neighbors.

"Attorney Ceneviva's misrepresentation of the meeting and his insinuation of the public opinion concerning this project only serves to mislead the public and the commission," he said.

Robert Blanchard too was upset at the meeting’s mischaracterization. “The meeting was billed as a casual open house to introduce a new communications staff member, not a discussion on the new building and parking garage,” he said in an email, adding that the time the meeting was scheduled almost assured a poor turnout. “If the school really wanted open dialogue with the Wallingford community, they would have scheduled it at a time when people could go and actually told them what the meeting was about.”

Steven Lazarus was one neighbor who did attend the meeting. He said when he saw there was no information about the application there, he asked to see it.

"They went and got the drawings at that point - they were in a different office - and they brought them in and I got to see them," said Lazarus, himself an architect. "At that point, I said, 'you know, you should share this information with your neighbors when you're planning a project,' to which I was told Choate really did not want to design by committee and that they really didn't feel that it was appropriate and necessary to have a meeting with the community in order to discuss upcoming construction projects."

Lazarus said he voiced his disappointment over the stand to school officials and left. That night he attended an Inland Wetlands meeting, where Ceneviva made the comment about inviting neighbors to a meeting to discuss the project and there was little interest.

"I sat there and felt like I had been used and abused and lied to," Lazarus said. 

He later called Choate Chief Communication Officer Alison Cady to express his displeasure, and he said she told him it was a miscommunication between the school and its attorney about the intent of the meeting. The school needs to have a clear policy of informing neighbors as to upcoming plans before they hit town land use boards, Lazuras said.


"I told her that whoever is telling you that you should not have meetings with your neighbors to discuss construction projects in advance of going to hearings is giving you really bad advice," Lazarus said. "They can say, look, we meant no harm, they have an explanation for the "misunderstanding" about the hearing."

A good town-gown relationship is beneficial for both the school and its neighbors, Lazarus said, citing an earlier development that the public was included in the planning and with which both sides were pleased with the outcome.

Several years ago, Lazuras said, during the planning for a new student union with a performing arts center, Choate held a public meeting on the plans which was attended by many neighbors on Curtis Avenue. 

"Their reaction was, this building is too big, it's literally six stories high, it looms over our properties, it's terrible," he said. "There was community opposition to the project, and there was a lot of community opposition, and as a result, Choate decided to split that project into two." 

They did an addition to the arts center, he said, they took that piece out of the  project and they made the student union smaller. Even the head of the school later agreed the project turned out better for the changes, Lazuras said.

"It was the input from neighbors which brought the project to a rational size, which the head of school has even acknowledged was actually the right thing to do," Lazarus said. "And that only happened because you had community involvement."

But Youker said he thinks the school isn't interested in having more meetings with neighbors like that. "At that meeting, people spoke up, and I don't think they really felt like they wanted to have any more meetings after that because it wasn't just coming to hear about your wonderful project and they got a lot of pushback," Youker said. "Since then they have had a lot of projects and there has never been any prior communications and the only way to find out if there's an upcoming project is to walk uptown and ask if there are any new applications."

The school needs to keep neighbors better informed, Youker said, as a common courtesy. If he is going to build a fence or cut down a tree, he talks to his neighbor about it, Youker said. "I'm not going to say oh, well, sorry."

Fast-forwarding to the most recent project, "there's no community involvement, and I don't think that's a good idea," Lazuras said. "If you are doing any project of any significance and you don't talk to the neighbors, you are a fool. Not only is it not neighborly, but most likely you're going to have pissed off neighbors because they have not been involved in the project. For Choate to take that position is foolish."

The Inland Wetland Commission will hold a hearing on the application at its Jan. 4 meeting.


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