Thursday, October 19, 2006

JI: Sisters Pray For Relief From Council

By Mike Cummings
Journal Inquirer

ENFIELD - Three Felician sisters faced the Town Council on Monday and gently delivered a firm message: They will not abandon their fight to build a new parking lot behind the Enfield Montessori School.

Sister Anastasia, a longtime teacher and administrator, spoke first.

"We come in peace, but we'd also like you to know we also come with determination," she said. "We will continue to garner attention to our cause as long as the well-being of our students is a concern."

Sister Francine, the school's principal, and Sister Carol Marie, a teacher, joined Anastasia. About 100 parents, students, and other school supporters crowded the council chamber. [A crowd estimated at 250 gathered outside before the public was allowed to comment at the meeting.]

The sisters want to eliminate the gravel parking lot at the front of the Enfield Street property and construct a paved lot behind the school.

They say the current parking situation raises safety concerns as parents crowd the gravel lot and park along Route 5 to collect their children.

Their plans have sparked years of heated debate and expensive court battles - one in which the Planning and Zoning Commission sued the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The debate surrounding the lot has generated 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.

The Historic District Commission has denied the sisters' application to move the parking lot three times.

The controversy intensified three years ago when Wayne Bickley, the zoning enforcement officer, issued a cease-and-desist order on the current parking lot, arguing it was built without permission from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

In February 2005, the Zoning Board of Appeals rescinded Bickley's order. Two weeks later Bickley and the commission sued the ZBA and the sisters to have the order reinstated.

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

The commission decided not to appeal the ruling, but the legal struggle continues.

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

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

On Monday, the sisters held a rally in front of Town Hall in support of their cause. More than 100 people attended the rally, including many current students.

Cathy Ryan attended the event with her two daughters, who are students at the school.

"Let the sisters make their own decisions about their property without any hassle," Ryan said. "It comes down to protecting the safety of their students."

Addressing the council, Sister Francine asked why other property owners in the historic district appear to have less difficulty improving their land.

"This case is yet another example of how our school has been seemingly singled out," she said.

She invited the council to work with the sisters, suggesting it appoint a liaison to improve communication with the school.

Brendan Begley, a former student who now has two children at the school, said some town officials call the school's struggle "a divisive issue."

"The only place it's divisive is in the Enfield town government amongst its own committees," Begley said, addressing the council.

Penelope Gillis, who has a child at the school, said it is difficult to comprehend the town's opposition.

"We're asking for something simple, and I don't understand why the school and town can't work it out," she said to the council.

The school supporters received a sympathetic response from several council members.

Republican Councilman Ken Nelson said a drunken driver killed his father on Route 5 in front of the Montessori School in 1985.
Nelson offered to help the sisters improve safety in any way possible.

"I support them 100 percent," he said.

District 3 Councilman Scott R. Kaupin, the Republican minority leader, said the town staff failed the sisters during the application review process.

"And they feel they were unwelcome in the process, and I feel it's a black eye for the town."

Deputy Mayor Kenneth Hilinski, a Democrat, said the council ought to get more involved.

"I see no reason why the council can't act as an arbiter in that case or appoint an arbiter."

Mayor Patrick L. Tallarita, a Democrat, praised the sisters for providing the community a service.

"I'd certainly like to see this resolved in the best way for everybody," he said.

He said the council's role in the matter is strictly and correctly limited by the Town Charter, which limits the council's powers in land use issues.

Tallarita asked Town Attorney Christopher Bromson to research the possibility of mediating the matter through a third party. He made no promises that the council could influence the matter in the sisters' favor.

"Government has a way of disappointing sometimes," he said.


Anonymous said...

The mayor cares now that the heat is on him, otherwise he can't do anything it's interesting how someone whom can't do anything is now try to facilitate a land use issue to mediation. Is this ethicical? How does the council get involved in some issues but not others?

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