The Representative Town Meeting (RTM) agreed Wednesday to allow limited special resident parking on a public road at certain times and for certain months as part of a four-way legal agreement that is expected to enable the Legacy Theatre to finally open its doors.
Despite a last minute development that nearly derailed an agreement that took several years to work out, the RTM, in a 21-1 bi-partisan vote, overwhelmingly approved the agreement. The parties include the Legacy Theatre, the town of Branford, the Stony Creek Association (SCA), and a separate group of neighbors who live adjacent to the theater on Thimble Islands Road.
The fate of the theater was at stake as James R. Strub, a top land use attorney who represents Legacy, brought the parties together to come up with a last minute solution, one that won the approval of the RTM this week. After years of conflict and mediation, the reality of a new Legacy Theatre arising from the old Puppet House appears to be in sight.
Strub said in an interview that the RTM’s 21-1 vote was a major step for the theater’s future. Next, the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) will examine the operational details agreed to by the parties and vote on the settlement. They meet on June 20. Then the parties return to New Haven Superior Court on June 26 to meet with the judge overseeing the case, who will schedule a date for a hearing on the agreement.
Under the latest agreement, the one the RTM approved, a no-parking zone will be in effect on Thimble Island Road for seven private houses on the days the theater is open from Wednesday to Saturday, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. from March 1 to Oct. 15 and similarly, Wednesday to Saturday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the month of December. This means special resident parking will be in effect during the summer months.
The Legacy Theatre group purchased the property with the intent of creating a repertory theater in March 2013. But the theater’s plan has virtually been on hold ever since the Stony Creek Association (SCA) appealed the town’s decision approving an open-ended permit for the theater to Superior Court in New Haven. Major issues concerning its operation, parking, and scheduling had not been resolved when the Zoning Board of Appeals approved a permit in 2014.
The prolonged legal battle was not without high drama. The ups and downs of opening a theater in a small, seaside village has created a toxic atmosphere in Stony Creek, with neighbors pitted against each other. At one point in the process Dan Bullard, chair of the SCA, said the whole process “has put a wedge through Stony Creek that is extremely distasteful to everybody.”
The Stakes Were High
Had the latest dispute not been resolved, both sides would have lost. And they knew it.
An agreement among Legacy, the SCA, an abutting group of neighbors, and the town would have been undone, allowing Legacy to impose its own operating conditions in any number of areas the SCA disliked. As for the town, it would likely be sued by Legacy for not being able to use their property.
The Legacy agreement outlines the types of functions for the theater space, including plays, musicals, poetry readings, concerts, art classes, and civic events, among others. After much discussion the theater agreed it would not be used for rap concerts, heavy metal concerts, weddings, or outside parties. Hours of operation were established, including a decision that the theater “will be open to the public no more than 150 days per year.” No alcohol will be served.
Parking was the most difficult issue to resolve. During mediation the judge made parking the highest priority.
Town Staff Steps In on Parking Issue
The last minute high drama, which nearly upended the settlement, came to light after the June 1 Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) meeting. The P&Z issued a “positive referral,” which does not constitute approval for the parking plan but enables the process to go forth.
Before going to P&Z, the town staff reviewed the special parking plan, apparently became concerned about it, and decided to make it year round. It appears that the town may have acted without guidance of the four-way settlement, which states the special parking spaces would only be in effect when the theater is open, no more than 150 days a year. The parking plan applies to specific abutting houses on the street.
As a result of the town’s decision, Legacy’s engineers drew up a changed site plan, which was submitted to the P&Z on May 26 just before the June 1 P& Z meeting was to be held.
Without any information conveyed to the SCA board, the town and three other parties, including the attorney for the SCA, apparently agreed to the year-round parking. Asked at an SCA meeting Monday night why he didn’t inform the SCA of these changes, Attorney Timothy Lee, who represents the SCA, said he was unaware of the change until after the P&Z meeting.
However, Ted Ells, an attorney who sits on the SCA board, said at a meeting that all four attorneys in the case, including Lee, agreed to the change before the new site plan was drawn up.
According to Town Attorney Bill Aniskovich, the parking places to be used by seven private residents on what is a public road is a transfer of interest of land, a transfer that required referral to the P&Z and the subsequent approval by the RTM.
The Branford Police Department is not involved in enforcement, nor are the courts. If a car is parked illegally in a designated resident space and the car is towed, it is up to the driver and the homeowner to work it out.
Enter the RTM
At an RTM administrative services committee meeting held earlier this week, the five member committee approved the idea with three voting for it, one against, and one abstaining.
The RTM member who abstained was Josh Brooks, who represents Stony Creek on the RTM. Brooks publicly mulled over abstaining at the full RTM meeting as well and in the end did abstain. He said he was in favor of the theater but not the special parking plan.
“How does this not become a precedent for the town?” Brooks asked Aniskovich.
“We are not enacting an ordinance, we are approving a section of an agreement,” Aniskovich replied at the committee meeting held at the Canoe Brook Senior Center. Aniskovich noted that this decision was unique in that it involved an iconic theater with a long history, which is now seeking to open for business under new management. “This is a unique situation,” Aniskovich said.
Mark Branse, who represents the small group of abutting neighbors that broke with the SCA seeking in order to obtain the parking spaces, noted that the RTM would not enforce the no parking issue. “It is privately enforced,” he said.
At the SCA meeting on June 6, SCA board member Bob Babcock made a motion to amend the wording on the signs to reflect only the months when the no parking signs would be in effect. Babcock had told the SCA that the year-round parking plan was “unacceptable.”
A special meeting was called for June 12 at the Willoughby Wallace Library. Attorney Lee, a partner at the law firm of Fasano, Ippolito and Lee, attended. At this meeting the SCA board voted to approve a partial year parking rule for the residents, one that complied with their original agreement.
The motion passed by a 7-1 vote that night, with the approval of all the attorneys representing all the parties.
Ted Ells, an attorney and a member of the SCA board, asked Lee to explain why he had not conveyed the year-round parking changes made in the site plan to the SCA. Lee said he did not know about the changes until after the site plan was filed but that account did not fly with SCA members who said otherwise.
Ells was the lone dissenter in the 7-1 vote. Afterwards he told the Eagle that he was opposed, as a matter of principle, to the granting of designated parking to certain residents. He said he more than anyone wanted this matter resolved, but the parking decision created a bad precedent. He said he knew of no such designated parking, not just in Stony Creek, but in all of Branford.
“Residents in other parts of Branford will complain that Stony Creek has it, but no one else does. He said that the people getting the parking have off street parking and there are other ways to do signage with temporary signs put up during theater performances instead of restricting parking for long periods of time.” He also said on performance nights, the theater was required to have parking ambassadors who would steer theatergoers away from parking in front of the individual plaintiffs’ homes.”
In a subsequent interview, Strub had no comment on why the SCA was left in the dark. “It certainly made for an uncomfortable week,” he told the Eagle.
In the end, the final vote showed that the “good will developed between the Legacy and the SCA and the individual plaintiffs is real. We were able to work on an issue that did appear like it could be something insurmountable and come up with a reasonable solution,” he said.
Other Voices at the RTM
Before the final vote at the RTM various members voiced their views.
Rep. Jim Walker, who represents Stony Creek, outlined the history of Legacy’s legal efforts to open a renovated theater in the village, no easy task, he observed. Click here to read about the conflicts.
At an earlier meeting Walker observed that the Legacy, which essentially had carte blanche to do what it wants under the town’s zoning regulations, “has agreed to so many restrictions that it is as if their business plan has been rewritten.”
RTM member Peter Black, who represents Short Beach, was not happy with the agreement and voted against it. “I do see this snowballing to other
areas. This will not go over well with my constituents in Short Beach.” He noted that while the theater might be iconic, what residents face is the moment of realization when their car has been towed and they don’t know what to do next. (Strub later told the Eagle that will be worked out.)
Walker disagreed with Rep. Black’s parking concerns. He noted this was a legal agreement not a new ordinance adopted by the RTM and subject to various town and state laws. “This is a four-party stipulated legal agreement that will go straight to the judge who has been involved in the case for several years. It is not an ordinance.”
Brooks said that while he and entire community look forward to the opening of a theater in Stony Creek, he was still deeply concerned about the parking agreement. After thinking about it out loud, he abstained.
Peter Hentchel, an architect who represents Stony Creek, told the RTM that he supported the Legacy Theatre “and having them here…I hope that everyone will vote for it and we can put this to rest” and go forward.
Frank Twohill, an attorney, said he was amazed that “the four parties reached an agreement. I believe the theater has done all it can do to accommodate the parking situation.” He noted that the theater held 128 seats, and this might mean about 60 cars or so at a performance. He said he favored a shuttle van from a parking lot near Exit 56. In addition there is nearby parking at the Stony Creek Museum.
“I think this will be great for the town; great for Stony Creek. And there is an agreement for modification if things don’t work right,” Twohill observed.
Chris Sullivan, Democratic minority leader of the RTM, told the RTM that the Legacy Theatre “represents a great boost for the town, a great economic boost for the town. We are lucky to have them.”