Image on Blog Site
Is Fueling a Controversy in Litchfield
"It is the doing of a contorted mind."
-- Hysterical District Commission Chairman Wendy Kuhne
By Emily M. Olson
Litchfield County Times
LITCHFIELD-A photo of a blond woman in a Nazi uniform on an online blog linked to resident Andy Thibault's Cool Justice Web site, which was posted in connection with an issue involving a member of the Historic District Commission and plans for a Jewish community center, is making waves in Litchfield.
But the people who are objecting to the implications don't want to talk about it. They just want the commentary and the postings to stop.
Wendy Kuhne, chairman of the Historic District Commission and the subject of the online attack, was very upset by the blog photo. "What can I say? It's hurtful, very hurtful, totally inappropriate, degrading and libelous," she said. "It is the doing of a contorted mind."
Mrs. Kuhne called Mr. Thibault, a former newspaper editor who has made a specialty of covering criminal justice and civil rights issues, "a loose cannon."
"He is totally inappropriate," she said. "He has been doing this for years, and has hurt many people as a result."
Mr. Thibault, who publishes his own column, Cool Justice, on his site, as well as news articles, commentary and opinion from various sources, offers visitors links to numerous sites, including a blog published by the "Authentic Connecticut Republican," where a story entitled "What's Up Litchfield" and Ms. Kuhne's name appear next to the offending photograph. Attempts to reach the Authentic Connecticut Republican were unsuccessful.
When asked Tuesday about the photograph, Mr. Thibault said it was simply part of that link, and that he did not post it himself.
"It's not actually on my blog, but my blog links to a site ... that posted it," he said. "For Wendy Kuhne and others who have a history of violating or threatening property rights and wasting taxpayer money, certainly a little parody is not out of line. That's all I really have to say about it."
Mr. Thibault, an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, is a licensed private investigator and also professional boxing judge.
He is also a consulting editor for the Connecticut Review, a literary journal, serves on the advisory board of the Connecticut Center For The Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress, and manages an endowment that awards $17,000 annually to young writers in Connecticut.
His blog details his own investigations and reporting efforts, including his coverage of the ongoing battle between Lewis Mills High School student Avery Doninger and school officials regarding an online posting containing a derogatory reference to administrators for which the student was punished. Mr. Thibault said he is teaching a class on blogging at Northwest Connecticut Community College next year.
Mr. Thibault often publishes commentary and newspaper articles concerning Litchfield politics and conflicts between municipal boards and citizens. In the past, his coverage has included the "Black Santa" story, which involved an African American Santa Claus doll that was delivered to the First Selectman's office by resident Paul Mordecai Rosenberg when then-First Selectman Jerry Zinn was in office, as well as opinions surrounding the now-defunct plan to reconstruct the birthplace of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Litchfield.
The situation involving the Historic District Commission began earlier this fall with concerns surrounding plans to renovate and expand the old Wilderness Shop building on West Street in the Litchfield Borough, which raised questions about the rights of a property owner, specifically a property owner that plans to use that building as a religious headquarters.
The building in question is owned by Chabad Lubavitch, which is currently headquartered on Village Green Drive, about a half-mile west of the borough. Chabad Lubavitch's plans include installing a Star of David on the front of the building, a proposal that has been the center of the debate since it was first proposed. The historic West Street building is a former home that was built by the Deming family, one of Litchfield's more prominent names.
Mrs. Kuhne's alleged statement that a Star of David might not be in keeping with the historic district was labeled anti-Semitic by some observers. The commission has authority over all visible exterior changes to buildings within the historic district and is charged with maintaining the post-Colonial integrity of the area.
Newspaper articles ensued, including a large piece in The Hartford Courant that reminded readers about the Historic District Commission being strict about the types of changes and renovations that should be allowed in the Litchfield Borough, a one-mile square of the center of town that includes the green and North and South streets. In the past, for example, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast went through a rigorous effort to win approval to add window boxes for flowers to her historic property.
Mrs. Kuhne was asked to recuse herself from further hearings and discussion on the subject, which she did, but not willingly.
"I was asked to recuse myself and told that I was biased," she said. "It was not my choice. Apparently the applicant does not seem to know the difference between bias and concern over the appropriateness of a building in the historic district."
She pointed out that the commission follows rules and regulations, and that when plans to modify historic properties are involved the commission is bound by those rules. "When buyers purchase property in the historic district they are entering into a social compact," she said. "They are agreeing to be bound by rules and regulations. There are restrictions on what you can do with an historic property. You must be a good citizen and a good neighbor."
She noted that she has never voiced any opinion for or against the practice of religion in the borough.
"As I have said many times over, everyone is entitled to the practice of, and expression of, their religious beliefs," she said. "Indeed that is the basis of our Pilgrim heritage in New England. The historic Victorian structure at 85 West Street can be altered to a synagogue, as long as it adheres to town, state and federal guidelines for historic properties."
Mrs. Kuhne also pointed out that there have been discrepancies in the reporting of the project, particularly the size of the plan and the impact it will have on the building.
"Openness and cooperation is of paramount importance between applicant and commission," Mrs. Kuhne said. "Stating that a structure is 5,000 square feet when in reality it is over 20,000 square feet is not helpful. Building a religious edifice is one thing, but to cram a residence, hotel and health club into a small residential building is another issue."
The plans include the addition of a swimming pool, recreation areas for children's day care and education classes, offices, a kitchen and meeting areas.
Last week, Chabad's leader, Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach, said he and his architect and attorney had presented plans for the building to the commission and that the panel's members were helpful and considerate. His attorney, Peter Herbst, would not comment on the application other than to say it was being discussed in public meetings with the commission.
Resident Lynne Brickley, who has tangled with Mr. Thibault in the past about her concerns regarding preservationist Chandler Saint's former proposal to rebuild the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe off of North Street, would not comment on the issue, other than to say that she had contacted First Selectman Leo Paul, asking him to bring the issue to the Board of Selectman at its meeting next week.
In her request to Mr. Paul, Mrs. Brickley said she addressed "the anti-Semitism of [posting the photo], not the Chabad application."
Mrs. Brickley is asking Mr. Paul and Democratic members of the Board of Selectmen to "denounce the item at the next BOS meeting."