Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Town Has Spent More Than $15,000 To Harass Montessori School

Dispute over parking lot at Montessori School goes before judge

By Jennifer Hoyt
Journal Inquirer

ENFIELD - One afternoon in 1992, Sister Anastasia, then the principal of the Enfield Montessori School, received a call from the father of one of her students.

The man owned a construction business, and he told her he had some extra gravel from a job he had just completed. The nun accepted his offer to spread the gravel over the unpaved area along Route 5 that the school used as a parking lot.

Fourteen years after the gravel was put down, it is at the center of a lawsuit between two town boards that has cost the town more than $15,000, according to documents obtained from the town attorney's office.

Zoning Enforcement Officer Wayne Bickley and the Planning and Zoning Commission have sued the Zoning Board of Appeals for overturning an order that the school stop using the area for parking.

The school and the Felician Sisters, who operate it, are co-defendants in the suit.

On Tuesday lawyers from all sides presented their arguments before Judge Richard M. Rittenband at Hartford Superior Court. Rittenband will have 120 days to determine if the ZBA had evidence to conclude that the use of the lot wasn't a violation of zoning regulations.

According to invoices obtained by Brendan Begley, a supporter of the school, from the office of Town Attorney Christopher W. Bromson, the litigation cost the town $15,796 as of July. This figure doesn't include the fees incurred from Tuesday's hearing, Begley said Tuesday.

Matthew J. Willis, the lawyer for Bickley and the PZC, argued in court that by putting down the gravel, the school changed the use of the grassy area. That change requires a permit, he argued.

In 2003, at the request of PZC Chairman Anthony DiPace, Bickley said he looked into the use of the gravel lot for parking. By studying old aerial photographs and site plans, he determined that the area had not been used for parking prior to when the relevant zoning regulations were enacted.

Bickley issued two orders telling the school that the lot was constructed without approval from 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 require a permit.

The appeals board ruled in favor of the school and the Felician Sisters. Two weeks later the lawsuit concerning that ruling was filed.

Bickley said that was only the third time in 21 years the board had overturned one of his decisions. And it was the first time one of those rulings resulted in a lawsuit between two town boards, he said.

Supporters of the school are questioning why town officials are so adamant that the parking lot is eliminated.

"It's apparent to me that the motivation in this dispute cannot arise from the simple placement of gravel on a parking area 14 years ago," Kenneth R. Slater Jr., the lawyer representing the Felician Sisters and the school, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "The actual motivation doesn't always appear on the record of the zoning hearing."

Willis told Rittenband that it irks him that people think the town is attempting to threaten the school's existence.

"This has never been about shutting down the school," Willis said. "It's about a simple issue. This is all about a gravel parking lot."

Rittenband asked if this suit was part of a "turf war" between the two boards.

Willis said it wasn't.

"There's a huge public interest because the school's survival is at stake," Vincent W. Oswecki Jr., lawyer for the ZBA, said at the hearing.

For years the Felician Sisters have been wrangling with town officials over their 11-acre property.

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

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

Difficulties began in 2002 when the Historic District Commission twice voted against giving the nuns a certificate that would allow them to make expansions to the school.

In 2003, following Bickley's first order to stop using the gravel area as a parking lot, the Felician Sisters asked the Historic District Commission to approve a plan to expand an existing paved area and to eliminate the use of the gravel lot.

The commission rejected the proposal in 2004, saying it wouldn't fit in with the town's historic district. Less than a month after that ruling, the Felician Sisters and the school filed a lawsuit against the commission, seeking a reversal of the decision. That suit is pending in Hartford Superior Court and will be addressed after the suit involving the parking lot is settled, according to Sister Anastasia.

For now the school continues to use the gravel lot. No matter what the outcome of the suit, the school will not shut down, said Sister Francine, principal of the school.

Instead, she fears that if the school loses the suit, an unsafe traffic situation will be created.

"It is a threat to the school because it is a threat to the children," she said.


Anonymous said...

Great work!
[url=]My homepage[/url] | [url=]Cool site[/url]

Anonymous said...

Good design!
My homepage | Please visit

Anonymous said...

Great work! |