Legislative Council Unanimously Rejects Eminent Domain Option For Riverside Road Property

As childhood friends, Riverside Road resident Susan Oberstadt and her future husband, George, used to play in the cow fields that were eventually developed to build Sandy Hook School.

She became one of the first students to attend that new school back in the 1950s. Ms Oberstadt never dreamed that six decades later she would be sitting in a packed town council meeting fighting to keep her homestead from being taken by eminent domain so the town could enhance the development of a new Sandy Hook School.

But after hearing some impassioned pleas from neighbors, some the Oberstadt family never met, as well as a lengthy testimonial from the long-time property owner herself at a December 18 meeting, the Legislative Council unanimously rejected the notion of taking the property.

That option was one of three the council was asked to consider during Wednesday's meeting, as they learned negotiations to try to purchase the property had broken down. First Selectman Pat Llodra told the council that after evaluating three independent appraisals of the two parcels, which include the Oberstadt home, the town made its first offer of $380,000.

Mrs Llodra explained that the figure represented not only what she assumed would be a starting point for negotiations, but the maximum amount the town could draw from a state grant provided to replace Sandy Hook School. The original building was recently razed after officials and the community agreed to accept a state grant of nearly $50 million to rebuild after the 12/14 tragedy.

First Offer Rejected

Through the Oberstadt's attorney, that offer was rejected, Mrs Llodra reported. After some additional correspondence between the town and the family's attorney, the Oberstadts came back with a counter-proposal of $898,000.

At that point, knowing the state capped the amount available for property acquisition, Mrs Llodra decided she could convince her colleagues on the Boards of Selectmen, Finance and the council to find some additional money, so she authorized countering with an offer of $500,000.

"I thought I could make a case for it," Mrs Llodra told the council. "It was a right and fair offer - the right thing to do."

But on November 25, the town received a rejection of the second offer, and no further counters from the Oberstadts.

This prompted a need for the council, whose responsibility it is to decide on matters like property acquisition, to publicly consider whether to initiate eminent domain proceedings to take the two Oberstadt parcels for the new school driveway, to authorize the town to try and re-establish negotiations, or to scrap the new driveway idea and authorize a redesign to reactivate the former school's entryway via Dickinson Drive.

During the December 18 meeting, Mrs Llodra informed the council that the Oberstadts might have an idea that the property is worth much more than its appraised value, because in 2007, a valuation company working with the town preparing for a previous revaluation incorrectly fixed a $1.3 million value to the properties.

That development brought then Oberstadts to Town Hall to question the valuation, according to Town Land Use Director George Benson.

"The property owners came in and said it was ridiculous," Mr Benson said of the erroneous valuation, which was corrected administratively by the assessor without a hearing or appeal.

New Valuation Accepted

The Oberstadts at the time accepted new valuations of $243,000 for the parcel including their home, and $99,000 for a smaller interior parcel between the home and the school property, which borders the rear of the Oberstadt parcels.

During public comments following Mrs Llodra's and Mr Benson's report, the council heard from Ms Oberstadt, who said she was not there to talk about appraisals, but to talk about her family's history in Sandy Hook including the many years her husband served as a school bus driver and owner-operator.

She recalled attending one of the spring task force meetings during which she heard the town was considering Fairfield Hills as a likely location for rebuilding Sandy Hook School. But seven days later she sat in the same room watching a presentation of proposed plans for a new school at its original location.

That proposal showed plans that had a driveway in place of where the Oberstadts property existed.

"Our house was gone - everything we planted there was gone," Ms Oberstadt told the council. She said after being told there were other options for the driveway, the Oberstadts learned of the planned meeting and discussion of eminent domain.

"We considered this intimidation," she said. "Is this 'Nicer In Newtown'? I don't think so."

Neighbors Defend Neighbors

At that point a number of residents also stood in defense of their neighbor. Karen Holden, who has children attending and a future Sandy Hook student at home said she previously spoke against eminent domain at a task force meeting, before the Oberstadt property controversy ever developed.

"We don't want to cause any more loss or pain to a Newtown family," Ms Holden said.

Jon Jagush said taking a property for a driveway when one already exists proves there is no real need to take the property.

"Let's react in a responsible way that benefits everyone in the community," he told the council.

Resident Liam Heller said he didn't know the family involved, but said as a concept, eminent domain was just wrong.

"If you'rethinking of taking away someone's home, ask the families of the Sandy Hook community," Mr Heller said. "This is their home - put yourself in their shoes."

Robert Sonntag simply told the council, "it's morally wrong to take their property."

At that point, Councilman Robert Merola said it was never the primary intention of the town to take anyone's property, but officials were under the impression the family was willing to sell.

Mr Benson said that while there was a willingness to consider selling on the part of the Oberstadts, there was never a commitment. He added that the town was not so far along in the planning process that it could not adjust its plans to use Dickinson Drive instead of a new driveway.

But he also acknowledged for safety reasons, it would be best for the new school to have two entry and exit options. Having heard the property might have commercial potential because it is in the Sandy Hook design district, council representative Lisa Romano asked what type of business might hypothetically occupy the parcel.

Mr Benson said since the parcel was also part of an aquifer protection zone, and other concerns related to sight lines, "it is not feasible, in my opinion, to develop it commercially."

Upon questioning Town Attorney Monty Frank about the cost to complete eminent domain action, Mr Frank estimated the cost would not exceed $25,000.

Closed Session Discussion

At this point the council moved into closed executive session for discussion. After about 20 minutes, the panel along with members of the boards of selectmen, education and finance, who were there for a separate budget session, reconvened in public.

Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob then asked each member to express their feelings about the eminent domain matter, and to suggest any alternatives they saw as options.

One by one, each council member spoke against using eminent domain. They also seemed about evenly split between extending further negotiations, or just re-scoping plans to use Dickinson Drive for the new school's main entryway.

Councilman Dan Amaral said he would like to see "a meeting of the minds" on negotiations to hopefully still acquire the parcels, but was happy to know there were other options.

"We cant do $898,000," he said.

Council Vice Chair Neil Chaudhary agreed.

"The asking price isn't anywhere I want to go near," he said. "But I wouldn't be completely opposed to more negotiations."

Councilman Paul Lundquist agreed, saying "if no (further) negotiation is possible move to Dickinson Drive." And Councilman Joe Girgasky said he thought the family's counter offer was inflated.

"The appraisals are fair," he said, "the current offer is generous."

Ms Jacob thanked Ms Oberstadt for coming to the meeting, and said "If you don't want to sell, I'm OK with that. I don't support going to the taxpayers for more money (to buy the parcels.)"

She then asked Mrs Llodra to make a final attempt at negotiating with the Oberstadts, while preparing alternate proposed plans showing how the new school might utilize Dickinson Drive for the entryway. The results of any final negotiations, and a review of those alternate plans will take place at the January 8 council meeting.

Following the deliberation, during which no formal action was taken, Ms Oberstadt said she was relieved, but had a lot to digest.

"At least they're not going to throw us out in the middle of Riverside Road," Ms Oberstadt said. "I feel pretty good about that."

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