Offutt Center Offer Withdrawn

Nearly two years since it was announced, the offer by the Daniel E. Offutt III Charitable Trust to fund the addition of a wing to the Weston Public Library has been withdrawn.

Trustee Richard Orenstein informed First Selectman Chris Spaulding of the decision on November 3. In a letter, Mr. Orenstein said, “there appear to be more figurative hills to climb...and the Trust is unwilling to continue in the face of more unknowns. I regret that circumstances have brought us to this unfortunate conclusion.”

One unknown may have been the deal-breaker: sewage.

“It was always more complicated than it appeared,” First Selectman Spaulding told Weston Today. “To a certain extent it was always a long shot. But I’m deeply disappointed that it will not come to pass.”

In an announcement issued today, Dr. Spaulding praised the Offutt Trust and Town agencies who “have all worked diligently and tirelessly over the past two years to make this project successful for all of the constituencies involved.”

Municipal time

While acknowledging the need for due diligence and checks and balances, Dr. Spaulding frequently laments how public projects operate on ponderous “municipal time.”

The pace of progress on this one, plus the complexities of sometimes competing interests, eventually exasperated Mr. Orenstein.

“I’m just tired of it,” he told this reporter on Wednesday. He said the First Selectman’s statement did not acknowledge “the runaround and obstacles the Town imposed.”

Full stop

When late word arrived that sewage could present a significant challenge, Mr. Orenstein said he gave Dr. Spaulding two weeks to solve it or the offer would be withdrawn. He said, “I never heard from him.”

However, right up to the day before the offer was withdrawn, Dr. Spaulding said he was in close contact with Hanna Przada, the lead architect and designer engaged by Mr. Orenstein, to explore solutions.

During that two week period, a great deal of effort and communication seems to have gone on among Town officials, consultants, and Ms. Przada, who appears to have been the main—sometimes only—communication link between the Town and the Trust throughout the project. The sewage complication may have needed much more than two weeks to fully resolve, if it was resolvable at all.

Here is what we know so far about that. It is a developing part of the story.

The septic

The expansion of Firehouse No. 1, partly funded by a $500,000 donation by the Offutt Trust, is almost complete. It will provide bunk space EMS crews can use temporarily during emergencies.

An engineer engaged by the Town evaluated whether the expansion would create additional flow that would stress the existing Town campus septic system enough to warrant a new permit and require an upgrade. The conclusion was that it would not, since the facility would usually be unoccupied.

For the Library wing, the prospect arose, apparently only recently, that the system could not handle additional flow from a facility that will often be used by many people. This would require special permitting from the State and, very likely, an expansion of the septic system, which is costly.

A big price tag

How costly it would be is not clear at this time, but it appears to be considerable enough to represent a major challenge.

The most aggressive approach would be to build a connection to the Zenon wastewater treatment system on the school district campus. That may not even be possible, since that plant was built with a State grant to the schools.

Even if it were possible, the cost could apparently go easily into the millions. Mr. Orenstein told us on Wednesday he had heard a ballpark guess that it could “run into eight figures.”

Whatever approach is taken at whatever cost, Mr. Orenstein said he was not considering increasing the Trust’s donation to cover an upgraded septic system.

A tough fiscal climate

A septic engineer engaged by the Trust apparently insists that an application should be made to the State for a system that combines Town Hall’s need for additional capacity—which does not appear to exist—with the extra capacity needed for the new Library wing. The benefit is unclear, unless there is an assumption that the Town is willing to bear the cost of a septic expansion.

That could be a tough sell during belt-tightening times. A final decision would have been up to taxpayers. The project, were it to have proceeded, would have required a public vote.

There may also be little room to fund a septic expansion in the Trust’s gift, capped, as we understand it to be, at $5 million. Originally, the hope was that the total could fund construction and leave about $1 million for an endowment to defray operating costs for some period of time.

Unfortunately, early, preliminary estimates last year put the cost of construction above $5 million, unless the design were scaled down. This would put the endowment in doubt. There has long been concern that operating, maintaining, and staffing the new facility could require adding hundreds of thousands each year to the Library’s budget.

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