Thursday, October 12, 2006

JI: Nuns To Keep Parking Lot

Another Case Pending In Appellate Court

By Mike Cummings
Journal Inquirer

ENFIELD - The Planning and Zoning Commission has ended its attempt to close the Enfield Montessori School's gravel parking lot.

The commission has until Monday to appeal a recent Hartford Superior Court ruling allowing the school to use the lot, which is located at the front of the property on Enfield Street.

To do so, it must hold a special meeting before Monday to vote on the matter.

Anthony DiPace, commission chairman, said he will not call a special meeting, allowing the appeal period to lapse.

"The only person who can call a special meeting is the chairman, and I'm not going to call a special meeting," DiPace said Wednesday.

Sister Anastasia, a teacher at the school, is pleased the dispute has ended.

"We're delighted to have a final decision," she said Wednesday. "Things were up in the air there."

By forgoing an appeal, the commission will end years of heated debate over the lot, which has pitted two town boards -- the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals -- against one another and sparked rumors about the town's real interest in the matter.

The commission and Zoning Enforcement Officer Wayne Bickley, a co-plaintiff, had sued the ZBA for overturning an order that the school stop using the area for parking.

The Enfield Montessori School and the Felician Sisters, who operate it, were co-defendants with the ZBA in the suit.

In a decision issued Sept. 26, Hartford Superior Court Judge Richard M. Rittenband ruled the ZBA made "an honest judgment, which was reasonably and fairly exercised" in overturning the cease and desist order.

The school is at 1370 Enfield St. in the town's historic district, where strict guidelines regulate properties.

In 2003, and again in 2004, Bickley issued orders telling the school to stop using the parking lot because it was constructed without the permission of the PZC.

The school appealed Bickley's second order to the ZBA in February 2005. More than a dozen people affiliated with the school vouched that the grassy area had been used for parking before the zoning regulations took effect, and therefore didn't need a permit.

The ZBA agreed. Two weeks later Bickley and the commission filed their lawsuit.

The commission met behind closed doors last week with lawyer Matthew J. Willis, who represented it in the matter.

After nearly an hour, it emerged from the executive session and took no action.

DiPace declined to say why the commission decided not to pursue an appeal.

He said the commission's attempt to close the parking lot was based out of concern for safety. He said the lot causes a safety hazard because cars exiting it sometimes drive over the sidewalk.

"It was never about shutting down the school," he said.

The Enfield Montessori School, which has about 120 students, opened in 1965, although schools have operated on the property since 1944.

The debate surrounding the lot has sparked rumors about the town's interest in the issue. Some supporters of the school have said that town officials who have business interests in the area are trying to shut down the school.

Mayor Patrick L. Tallarita has said he received a few harassing phone calls about the matter.

Tallarita said he supports the decision not to appeal.

"I think that's the right direction for the commission to head in," he said Wednesday. "This was a very divisive issue. We need to move on to things that unite us instead of divide us."

Legal issues involving the school's parking situation are not settled, however.

The Felician Sisters are appealing a Hartford Superior Court ruling that upheld the Historic District Commission's denial of a proposed new parking lot at the school.

The sisters want to eliminate the gravel parking lot at the front of the Enfield Street property and expand a paved lot at the back of the property.

Their appeal is pending in the state Appellate Court in Hartford.

The sisters are holding a rally in support of their cause at 6 p.m. on Monday on the town green


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