Legacy Theatre A Go!

Marcia Chambers PhotoWith the lawsuits settled, Keely Baisden Knudsen, the artistic director of the Legacy Theatre, says exterior renovations to the historic Puppet House will get underway this month. She said she is delighted.

In a letter to the theater’s supporters, Knudsen says the Legacy has been given a $350,000 gift that will be used for exterior renovations once plans have been reviewed and accepted. “It will be wonderful to see visible progress”on the building, which she expects by year’s end, she said.

Her letter said, “We have resolved all issues that have paused our progress on moving forward with the historic theater building in Stony Creek!

“All parties are satisfied that the final agreements we have reached are in the best interests of all involved, and with neighbor concerns put to rest, we may fulfill our mission of bringing communities together through live performing arts.”

The “pause” took three years.

A Litigious Journey

In July, the Board of Selectmen (BOS) approved a four-way legal settlement. The agreement includes a stipulation that gives the theater and certain residents exclusive use of seven parking spaces on Thimble Island Road when the theater is in operation about 150 days a year.

The four parties included the Town of Branford, the Legacy Theatre, the Stony Creek Association (SCA), and a separate group of neighbors who hired their own attorney after deciding to seek the parking spaces.

The Legacy Theatre group purchased the property, the former Puppet House, with the intent of creating a repertory theater in March 2013. The theater’s plan has virtually been on hold ever since the SCA appealed the town’s decision approving an open-ended permit for the theater to Superior Court in New Haven.  Once in court, mediation efforts ordered by the judge took a long, winding road, with a number of detours.

Major issues concerning its operation, parking, liquor use and scheduling of outside events had not been resolved when the Zoning Board of Appeals approved a permit in 2014. These issues did not fall under the authority of the ZBA.  Under the current agreement, no outside events, including private events, will be permitted.

Over the course of the litigation, the SCA became deeply divided, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Last year a group of abutting Legacy neighbors broke from the SCA and hired Attorney Mark Branse to represent their interests. Town Attorney Bill Aniskovich represented the town in what turned out to be an unusual settlement.

As it turned out the primary issue for Branse and the abutters, who are called co-plaintiffs, was parking, specifically designated parking spaces for certain neighbors on Thimble Islands Road. The theatre is located at 128 Thimble Island Road. The parking places were granted for as long as the theater exists there.

After the judge signed off on the settlement, Jim Strub, Legacy’s attorney, said in an interview that the time the case took concerned him a great deal. What was difficult, he said, was the need to negotiate with three separate parties without being able to do so simultaneously. “We had to do it one at a time. And because of that it took a long time. At the outset came negotiations with the SCA, then came negotiations with a separate group of neighbors. Finally came the town.”

Current SCA Board Re-Elected

At the first meeting of SCA after its July election, in which the current board was re-elected, Dan Bullard, re-elected as the organization’s president, said of the three-year ride, “It’s over. There are conditions. I hope it all goes smoothly. I am so glad it is over.” The newly elected board applauded. The meeting was held at the Willoughby Wallace Library.

The July SCA meeting came a day after New Haven Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Corradino approved the Legacy Theatre settlement, one that involved the SCA, the town of Branford, the Legacy and a group of abutting neighbors.

Parking Remains An Issue

At its July meeting, the SCA agreed that the legal issues were “over,” but there were lingering concerns. One neighbor, Janet Weithas, disagreed with the idea that special parking privileges were due a few neighbors because of the “extreme hardship” one board member said they will suffer living next to a 128-seat theater. Weithas observed that Thimble Island homeowners have no special parking; nor do boat slip residents, nor do tour boat tourists. or those headed to the local beach.

Weithas also observed that two of the three homeowners with special parking privileges have driveways and garages of their own. One does not, but “does not reside here and the houses are empty,” she observed. 

She thanked Josh Brooks, a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) from Stony Creek, for abstaining from voting for special parking at the June RTM meeting. Brooks said the special parking decision did not sit well with him. And Weithas also thanked Ted Ells, a member of the SCA and an attorney, who voted against the settlement at a prior board meeting.

Just how an illegally parked car will be dealt with remains unclear. Apparently it is up to the homeowner to call a tow company, but how the driver of the illegally parked car will learn the details of the towing and where his or her car is located remains unclear.  Aniskovich said at the BOS meeting that police will not enforce the no-parking zone on Thimble Island Road. Nor will the courts.

Knudsen looked at the sunny side. 

“It has been a patient process, which has proven invaluable in understanding and incorporating concerns of the neighbors and community into our business plan in regards to days and hours of operation, noise containments, and parking solutions. All parties are satisfied that the final agreements we have reached are in the best interests of all involved, and with neighbor concerns put to rest, we may fulfill our mission of bringing communities together through live performing arts.

“Indeed, all’s well that ends well, and with our neighbors by our side as we move forward, this historic theater will be restored, re-imagined, and become a treasured landmark of entertainment and education for all,” Knudsen wrote. 

Knudsen spoke to the title of Shakespeare’s play but did not elaborate on the underlying themes of “All’s Well That Ends Well.” (At times it appeared that the passions of Stony Creek neighbors seemed to playing out the themes of “All’s Well”– conquering, betrayal and outfoxing one another.)

Knudsen wrote to the theater’s supporters that “We are thrilled to move forward with the cherished building’s restoration, and are humbled by your continued, undying support.”

Marcia Chambers PhotoSometime later she put up a new sign on the Legacy door. “Thank You Stony Creek! Together we make a difference. Rebuilding the Past, with a Partnership in the Future.”

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