Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Courant Covers Town's Demented & Costly Crusade Against Enfield Montessori School

EDITOR'S NOTE: More to come on costs to Enfield taxpayers and the politics behind this insidious enterprise...

Boards Grapple In Court

Did Nuns' Parking Lot Need Permit?

Courant Staff Writer

September 13 2006

ENFIELD -- The docket read Enfield vs. Enfield in Superior Court in Hartford Tuesday as two town boards faced off over a dispute about a parking lot at the Montessori School.

The planning and zoning commission and zoning enforcement officer say the school illegally constructed a gravel parking lot in 1992. The nuns who run the school say they have used that area as a parking lot for nearly 50 years - before the special permit regulations were established - and graveling it was a matter of maintenance, which they say does not require a permit.

The zoning board of appeals sided with the Felician Sisters of the Order of St. Francis of Connecticut, who have run a school on the property in various forms since 1944.

The 3-year-old dispute was the subject of a hearing Tuesday, which was moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate more than 30 supporters of the school. The judge did not rule in the case.

"Everything that we're fighting for is due us," said Sister Francine Mary Sousa after the hearing. "We've had the parking lot for decades, why all of a sudden are they fighting us on it?"

Matthew J. Willis, the attorney for the planning and zoning commission and zoning enforcement officer, said "it comes down to the integrity of the zoning regulations."

The dispute began in December 2003 when the planning and zoning commission sent a letter to the school calling the parking lot illegal because the school, which is located on Enfield Street in the historic district, did not obtain a special permit to construct a gravel lot in 1992.

At the time, Sousa said, the school was developing plans - based on the advice of a traffic consultant - to build a loop and new parking lot further back on the property to alleviate traffic and safety concerns. But some neighbors and the historic commission were opposed to those plans. The sisters have a separate appeal pending in Superior Court to the denial of its application to the historic commission.

In December 2004, the planning and zoning commission issued a cease-and-desist order on the gravel parking lot, giving the school 10 days to get the necessary zoning approval or remove the lot. The sisters and school appealed the decision, and the zoning board of appeals found in their favor. The planning and zoning board appealed that decision.

Mayor Patrick Tallarita said he could not estimate how much the town has spent in legal fees in the case, but that he trusts the judgment of both land-use bodies in pursuing the case.

"I would very much shy away from the town council taking positions of finance when dealing with land-use committees," Tallarita said. "Then you open up second-guessing of your land-use committees by another board and that really isn't the charge of the council."

He said the council would be concerned if there were habitual problems of improper decisions regarding litigation, but that he didn't consider that to be the case with these two land-use bodies.

The sisters and their attorney, Kenneth Slater of Hartford's Halloran &Sage, said they consider the issue, which was raised more than 10 years after the graveling was completed, a threat to the school's existence.

"How do you bring young children into the area without parents getting out of the car to walk them out?" Sousa said.

Willis said the issue was raised as soon as it was brought to the zoning enforcement official's attention, and simply required the school obtaining approval for the lot.

Contact Rachana Rathi at


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