Library Expansion Approval and Gift in Doubt

Rendering: Lyons Plain Architecture

On Wednesday evening, the Historic District Commission continued its consideration of the proposed addition to the Weston Public Library. In the end, the meeting was continued to October 16, a decision that came after a sense emerged that the application for a Certificate of Appropriateness would be denied if a vote were taken.

For what appears to be a majority of commissioners, the central concern is the size and height of the addition as compared to the existing Library structure. Whether that concern can be addressed in a relatively short period of time is an open question, as is the patience of the donor whose offer to fund it makes the addition possible.

Most commissioners appeared reluctant to be the ones to kill the project, which, even in the event of an HDC green light, would still require a series of approvals, including a town vote. The two-week continuation was something of a lifeline, thrown only when First Selectman Chris Spaulding indicated he might withdraw the application and re-file it later, which would reset the HDC's clock.

It wouldn't necessarily reset the donor's clock.

A Sense of Urgency

By law, the commission has 65 days to either approve or deny an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness. If they do not act in that time, the application is approved by default. Members of the commission did not appear tempted to let that happen.

After a brief caucus with the First Selectman, architect Hanna Przada told the commission she did not expect the donor would accept a significant delay and would not re-apply.

The Library expansion, a new Arts and Innovation wing, would be funded by a gift of up to $5 million offered by the Daniel E. Offutt III Charitable Trust, whose trustee, Richard Orenstein, has already made donations totaling over $1 million to Weston organizations, including the Library, Weston Historical Society, and EMS.

Mr. Orenstein has also offered, contingent on approval, up to $500 thousand towards a rebuild of Firehouse No. 1 to provide quarters for EMS and the Volunteer Fire Department. That project will likely come before the Historic District Commission later this year. We do not know if a withdrawal of the Library offer would imperil that gift, and perhaps others.

Given the late Mr. Offutt's fondness for Weston, it is easy to imagine the prospect of other potential donations. It is equally easy to imagine that an exasperated donor would turn his attention elsewhere. Mr. Offutt had roots in several Connecticut towns and in other states. As we understand it, many continue to solicit the generosity of his estate.

A Request for Guidance

Members of the commission noted that funding is not in their purview, which is correct. They also noted that the 65-day time frame is not in their control, which is also correct. But that statement could unintentionally suggest that commissioners first heard of the project and saw the design concept only a few weeks ago when the application was filed, which is not the case.

First Selectman Spaulding said plans were presented to the commission last November. We know the commission began examining the design almost immediately. At a meeting in March, chairman Paul Deysenroth shared with commission members, and us, copies of an email exchange early in the year with Mary Dunne, the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, where Mr. Deysenroth requested guidance about how the commission should consider the glass walls in the conceptual design.

There is nothing inappropriate about that request, and nothing out of order in Ms. Dunne's reply. Her response was mainly a brief summary of the commission's statutory role. She did not offer an opinion about the project.

That came later.

Controversial Input

In Wednesday's meeting, an opinion by Stacey Vairo, a staff member of the CT Trust for Historic Preservation, was read into the record by the chairman. In it, Ms. Vairo opined that the design was "at odds" with the existing Library and asserted that Ms. Dunne and others in Hartford share her view.

The First Selectman was visibly troubled and questioned the propriety of having the opinion presented. Mr. Deysenroth insisted it isn't an opinion, even though the letter specifically says it is.

Dr. Spaulding pressed for an explanation of why it was sought, what other opinions, if any, had been solicited and received, why the requests and responses had not been offered in full public view, and why the opinions had not been provided to the applicant, which is the Town.

It is difficult to connect the dots between the explanations offered by Mr. Deysenroth and commissioner Chris Kimberly. Mr. Kimberly insisted the memo was only a response to the previous inquiry about glass, even though it makes no mention of glass. Mr. Deysenroth said he had sent the drawings and "asked if they had any input."

Town Attorney Ira Bloom said the decision to reach out should have been discussed openly as a commission, and that a private applicant would be "very upset" by the action, perhaps suggesting it would have led to a lawsuit were the applicant a citizen. Eight pages of the handbook the commission often refers to contain several examples of various towns (none of them Weston) where commission decisions were overturned in court due to procedural errors.

Mr. Bloom said the commission's action was "very unorthodox" and that Ms. Vairo should have been "invited to come down for a dialogue" in public, a practice that gives applicants the opportunity to obtain and present other opinions.

Attorney Bloom also read a portion of the letter that had been omitted in the chair's reading, a statement objecting to "adding a barn-shaped building to a modern structure." So far, we have not been able to determine how the addition's design could be seen as resembling a barn. We do not yet know what documents Ms. Vairo received and used as the basis of her opinion.

After the meeting, we asked Dr. Spaulding if he questioned the fairness of the Historic District Commission's review and whether he is worried a negative pre-judgment has been made. He did not answer directly, saying only "I have concerns about the process."

Polling the Commission

Other parts of the meeting were far less contentious. Ms. Przada responded to the commission's previous questions and comments about materials and other details. Her answers appeared to be well-received.

At several points, commissioners expressed a strong desire to work with Ms. Przada to make the design acceptable. But they agreed with advice offered by Allen Swerdlowe, an architect and chairman of the Town's Building Committee, that they not try to act as architects themselves.

So the question remained: what did they want to see in the design? Ms. Przada had already offered to reduce the height of the structure by three feet and reposition the sign with the building's name. She noted that the donor has clearly-defined expectations for the building, which is meant to simultaneously provide a needed facility and honor Mr. Offutt.

Dr. Spaulding polled each commissioner for specific criteria that would make the design acceptable. For the most part, the responses were not specific.

Commissioner Lynne Langlois restated her concern that the size of the building overwhelms the existing structure. She pointed out that commissioners are in an unusual position. Normally, they review finished construction documents. In this case, the donor seeks approval of the design concept before he is willing to incur the additional cost of finalizing construction documents. Ms. Langlois asked if the donor would accept a conditional approval. Ms. Przada said he possibly would.

Mr. Kimberly said the design's proportions of glass and wood were too dissimilar to the main Library, and had a different idea about dealing with the addition's size. In essence, he suggested orienting the building in a different direction to make the height less noticeable, and told Ms. Przada she could simply submit a sketch on a napkin.

Ms. Przada later told us the idea would require a complete redesign, and said flatly "there will be no redesign," presumably an indication of the donor's unwillingness to accept delay or incur the substantial cost of a new design with no assurance it would be approved.

Commissioner Roland Poirer said only: "It's too big."

The newest member of the commission, Leona Peiffer, had already said she approves of the design as is.

Mr. Deysenroth declined to answer the question.

The First Selectman appeared frustrated. He asked how Ms. Przada could possibly come back to the commission in two weeks with specific, acceptable design revisions if she does not know what specific design revisions would be acceptable.

The answer, if there is one, may not come until the October 16 meeting. It will be held at 8:00 in the Town Hall Meeting Room.

Related Articles:

September 27, 2019: "Great Success at the Library, HDC Meets October 2"

September 12, 2019: "New Library Wing Presented to Historic District Commission"

September 6, 2019: "The Role of the Historic District Commission"

January 29, 2019: "A Gift from Daniel Offutt: an Art & Innovation Center"

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