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“The discussion in front of us is not about value or merits of the Leaps of Faith,” said First Selectman Pat Llodra, during an August 17 Board of Selectmen’s meeting. The three selectmen and other officials all say “this is an extraordinarily valuable program that does great service.” The question is about its programming location, she said.
The ensuing three-hour meeting detailed the LOF’s and town’s recent struggle to find a suitable riverside spot on Lake Zoar for the adaptive waterski group’s clinics, which cater to children, the blind and disabled, and veterans. The Sandy Hook-based group has been operating for 25 years. Programming has grown and most recently neighbors in various clinic locations have become concerned. Several brought their complaints to the August 17 meeting.
Selectmen moved later that night to grant a temporary license to LOF to continue operations at the Walnut Tree site … continuing through September 30.” (See related article “Disabled Waterski Group And Neighbors At Odds.”)
Mrs Llodra asked about the LOF history and “what brought us to this point.”
She turned her attention to Land Use Director George Benson. Approximately two years ago, he related, “we had complaints from Housatonic Drive,” which is where LOF held events. Over the years the programming has grown to “more and more events and people, and the main concern was parking,” Mr Benson said. “It blocked up the neighborhood and it was a problem, and also it’s a residential property and it’s a use that’s not allowed.” He said nothing was “in the regulations to allow that type of use in residential zone.” Two years ago the town, LOF, and FirstLight Power Resources began looking “for a place that’s suitable.”
“We tried a number of ways to solve” the location issue, Mr Benson said. This season saw several clinics run from Zoar Beach in Monroe near a small marina by Stevenson Dam following an action in August 2016 when “we issued cease and desist to LOF to discontinue use of [Housatonic Drive],” but the town was “still trying to facilitate, find a place for them to go.”
The town “really didn’t have many options” other than to stop the LOF programs on Housatonic Drive. “It got to a point where … neighbors [were] threatening litigation because we weren’t acting soon enough … we tried to find a way to work somewhere else to have events…possibly Walnut Tree Hill,” Mr Benson said. However, the Walnut Tree Hill site bordering Bridge End Farm Lane, which runs along Lake Zoar, also prompted frustrations among neighbors.
Mr Benson said Walnut Tree Hill “seemed like a solution and we all felt it was the solution we were looking for.” The town, through the Parks and Recreation Department, soon issued a temporary events permit to LOF for use of the town-owned property, feeling that “was a good short-term solution… I underestimated impact to neighbors,” he said.
Mr Benson addressed selectmen saying, “There was controversy. I didn’t expect it.”
The Level Of Activity
Recreation Director Amy Mangold explained her department’s involvement. She said a temporary event permit “was a solution to a problem that was imminent.”
Ms Mangold then said she noted “more events than we envisioned on a temporary basis.”
Mrs Llodra said, “When I became aware that there was a level of activity that I thought was greater than was appropriate to be issued for a temp permit I received a copy of [the LOF] schedule … shared concerns with [Ms Mangold] saying it was way beyond what we would have allowed.”
Ms Mangold then met with LOF “and asked if events could be scaled back … I don’t think this was dishonest, but I don’t think its was clear, the amount of activity.”
Although the temporary permit did not require the town to inform neighbors of activity on the adjoining town property, Selectman Herb Rosenthal said, “I think the town did a disservice to neighbors and LOF by not having a meeting to explain what was going on so people would know why brush was cut, why a dock — people may have been unhappy, but I think that being open, whether legally required for this permit or not, would have been a better approach.”
“I said before, it was miscalculation on my part,” Mr Benson said. He did not have to inform neighbors, “but should have. I take that on myself.”
Prior to inviting comment from LOF supporters and neighbors concerned with the organization’s operations, Mrs Llodra said the question before her board was “not about value” of the LOF, which she referred to as a “wonderful program.” The board’s intent is to find a way for the program “to succeed and also meet needs of the community; that’s our challenge here.”
LOF Founder Joel Zeisler also said the Walnut Tree Hill Ballpark property has “been wonderful … we don’t think there is a problem. I know neighbors will disagree. We do not have a traffic problem,” he said, defending his organization against various accusations. He also said the Department of Energy and Environmental Protections (DEEP) sent an e-mail that said LOF is not violating any rules, which he then submitted to the board.
His organization, along with Parks and Recreation and Land Use “picked this ballfield.” Per request, he also developed plans for a storage building, to give the Recreation and Land Use Departments an idea of what he might want to do onsite if the location were to be the a new home. “We did everything we were asked to do … we tried to cooperate 110 percent with town requests,” Mr Zeisler said of this and other requests.
“I would like to resolve this… this is a wonderful site, participants are enthusiastic about it,” he said.
Considering a criticism that the LOF does not serve many people from Newtown, he named Newtown REACH Founder Adam Carley: “He has brought wonderful children here a few times this year. Many were affected by tragedy here in 2012…”Mr Zeisler said.
“We had no place to go…,” Mr Zeisler said. “We overdid our welcome” at Zoar Beach, he said, also claiming it “wasn’t safe there.” Why did he not talk to neighbors? Mr Zeisler said, “This is temporary. Why alarm neighbors if [we’re] not going to be there come November.” But he does hope “we are there, for the people with disabilities. We serve a lot of people. We won’t have a place to go if this falls through, a crying shame,” he said.
“I know the impact on the lake,” he said. He “acquired all permits necessary” through the town, FirstLight, and DEEP boating division, he said. “Safety is our biggest concern,” he said.
He then stressed that the site “works well,” and described his hours of operation, number of participants and volunteers, and keeping in mind allowing neighbors “to enjoy their property,” Mr Zeisler said.
Regarding changes on the lake, increased traffic or jet ski use, he said, “This is a public lake, and that’s what it’s used for.”
Not In My Backyard
He said the issue was about “not in my back yard.” “Some residents have not been able to accept the possible change for the better … have to accept change … I would not want to see opportunity for the disabled community to fall apart here. If you buy next to a public park these things can happen … remember it’s a public lake and public can do what they want,” as long as they are not breaking laws, Mr Zeisler said.
LOF board Chair Kathryn Wolf said that “by not having events, we put ourselves at jeopardy for not getting funding. We are 100 percent funded by donations/grants, financially we have to keep holding events. Cease-and-desist jeopardized our very existence … we were going to lose our funding.” The LOF is a nonprofit organization.
She also noted “inaccuracies” in neighbors’ complaints. She stressed, “All we have wanted to do was work with neighbors…”
“We all have rights to waterway, it’s pubic and we want to be sure people with disabilities” also have access, Mr Zeisler said.
Without Walnut Tree Hill, “We have no place to go,” Mr Zeisler would say several times.
Mr Zeisler hopes to finish this season, then work to find a home for next season.
Bridge End Farm resident Todd Martin said traffic on the road has caused problems. Cars at one point lined the street until the town arrived late to unlock a gate to the ballfield.
A former LOF volunteer, Mr Martin believes “LOF is a great organization; when they surpassed six clinics a year in Shady Rest [Housatonic Drive],they became a nuisance to residents, preventing them from enjoying use of their own yard and recreation on Lake Zoar. Tensions escalated … causing volunteers to disengage and pursue legal actions …”
LOF “showed disrespect for their neighbors, environment, and our park field. They continue to obstruct recreation on Lake Zoar, they are dominating that area of the lake,” he said.
Bridge End Farm Lane resident Dan O’Donnell, also a former LOF volunteer, said his children “are unsafe swimming in the lake with the boat traffic, constant running boats. My kids are not allowed to swim in lake right now.” He said, “I feel strongly that this is the wrong location. I request the board not allow another event at this location.” He also said the neighborhood would respect and support the selectmen’s decision.
Mrs Llodra then asked for public comment, saying, “It’s not about the value of the program,” but its location, which is the question.
Mike Payton with the DEEP boating division spoke next, saying a DEEP officer observed activities to see if activities required a DEEP Marine Event permit. He did not see activity that obstructed or hindered navigation. According to meeting minutes, available at newtown-ct.gov, Mr Payton said the state does not take a position to support or not support the organization, the town, or residents.
Public comment came from a handful of residents. William Jones thanked LOF for its good work, “but one huge problem that looms above others … if I started running business” from his home address, the town would have issued him a cease and desist order.
He said, “It’s 501(c)(3), but still a business — businesses should not be operated in residential zone, and made more egregious because this is a town park.” Business has “no standing in this area,” he said.
Resident Ken Serke also spoke as a neighbor concerned about the LOF lake use. He and his wife observed the LOF dock going in, which prompted questions, frustrated that he was steered in the wrong direction regarding LOF permits for lake use. Mr Rodgers stressed that there were no permits allowing the LOF to close the lake.
Permits are a “moot issue,” Mrs Llodra said, since no permit has been issued to close the lake. Mr Seke also asked about the town protecting itself from liability. “It’s not our liability for activity run by LOF,” Mrs Llodra said. LOF has its own insurance.
Lynn Simoneau of Newtown said the ballfield was a perfect site. Other locations are sandy, and difficult for wheelchairs. Ms Simoneau uses a wheelchair. Crying, Ms Simoneau said that participating in LOF events “makes you feel like you do not have a disability; it makes you feel like you are once again free. It is huge — you do not know the impact of just that and we need the space.”
Other residents expressed disbelief that people could act out against the LOF, referring to the dock vandalism.
Bethel resident Alex Snow said that recently an LOF boat was cut off by a public boat and that LOF was observing safety while a member of the public was not.
Included with the meeting minutes for the BOS August 17 meeting is correspondence from DEEP Officer Vincent Mazzotta stating he responded to a call from the LOF regarding another boat operator who was driving recklessly. The incident is under investigation (See related article).
Other resident correspondence and the LOF schedule are also included with the meeting minutes.
On Tuesday, August 29, both Mr Zeisler and Ms Wolf offered statements regarding the disabled ski organization.
Mr Zeisler wrote that in 2017, “We were about to go to court regarding 25 years of events at 90 Housatonic Dr.” Land Use issued a cease and desist order this season for operations at that address.
He said, “We were offered [207 Walnut Tree Hill] and to erect a building” by Land Use and the Parks and Recreation Department “if we stopped events” at Housatonic Drive.
“We did, (although court looked favorable for us),” he said.
He stated that “We were told the neighbors didn’t have a say as this is a public park [and] public lake and no impact was expected.”
The LOF was able to use the property midsummer, and also received a permit for constructing a dock there.
Before events started, the dock was vandalized. He also alleges other incidents against his organization and skiers that took place on the water.
“Events went extremely well after these incidents,” he said. The LOF had no response to invitations to town officials to attend events. “They could have seen the impact on the disabled participants and [their] families,” he said, and also seen the “lack” of impact on neighbors.
He feels neighbors’ objection to events is “based on fabrications, exaggerations, and lies.” He believes accusations against him were meant to “attract every group that uses the lake to go against the disabled,” he stated.
He asked why a recreation site used by able-bodied children for baseball should not also be used for the disabled, veterans, and children.
He stated that his organization is “not breaking any laws and the site has plenty of room to operate safely.”
Problems with neighbors are “strictly and only” a case of “not in my back yard,” Mr Zeisler said.
“We have gone out of our way for the neighbors,” he said, by finishing Saturday events early, canceling other events, and inviting interested neighbors to an informative meeting.
He questions why the LOF cannot use Eichler’s Cove, and notes in other locations the grade is too steep and would not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said.
Mr Zeisler asserts that the town “favored the neighbors and made things more difficult for us — having little concern for the disabled vets, children, and adults.”
He thought the August 17 Board of selectman meeting was “supposed to be for a permanent contract for a home for LOF,” which included plans for a building there, he said.
Mr Zeisler feels the selectmen’s “intentions seemed only to have us out of there.” His organization had prepared drawing and surveys for a building, he said.
“The selectman did grant us a [temporary] contract to finish the year [through September 30] with no recourse to ever continue, and during this [September] period, restricted times [four hours or less],” Mr Zeisler said.
The limitations on the LOF are a “huge injustice” to the disabled community,” Mr Zeisler said. “Only due to selfish/small neighbors — while the town listened.” He said, “This was our dream, it works, there are no problems with this site — it’s wonderful.”
Ms Wolf said also in an e-mail on August 29, “I feel everything he said is accurate.” She named several issued that should be addressed, including, “LOF has successfully operated for 25 years, and now LOF has nowhere to hold clinics for 2018”
“We have found that the Walnut Tree Hill ballfield location is a perfect location … and we would love to stay there.”
Ms Wolf said, “We feel the selectman had to side with the residents against LOF,” and she stated that the skiing organization “really needs the community’s support at this time,” and suggested contacting selectmen and Legislative Council members about the LOF.
The LOF “wants to work with the Bridge End Farm Lane residents regarding the ballfield site, and will continue to work with the town regarding finding a site.
She, too, alleged vandalism, “purposeful unsafe driving of boats” near ski clinic participants, and “aggressive driving in the park’s parking lot.” She also raised an issue with Selectman Will Rodgers’s statement that he would like to see LOF have a number of different locations and referred to these locations as spreading the inconvenience.
“We feel LOF is what Newtown as a community is and wants to continue to be. LOF is there to help change people’s lives,” she said.
Resident Rebecca Kowalski offered her thoughts supporting the LOF efforts. “I find it disheartening that most of the townspeople are not even familiar with this foundation and that a small group are so self-absorbed to not see that this foundation has been doing its work successfully for 25 years, but don’t want it in their backyard, that’s disgraceful.
“If only it were mandatory to do some sort of community service for our town, many would see the value that LOF serves to so many in need,” she continued. “Running a foundation is a passion, to be able to serve families that need what we love is an honor, giving back helps to heal those who suffer loss but it also empowers us to be better people.”
Discussing the town’s position regarding LOF operations, Mrs Llodra said this week that the LOF would like some changes and will come back to [selectmen] on September 5 regarding the start and end times for their clinics, “and we will discuss it.”
She said, “We licensed them temporarily,” and it is not renewable. Activity times “are explained in the license.”
The license was “not negotiable. The [selectmen] have determined that these are the conditions for their activity at this location.”
Over the years the LOF program “has morphed into a larger footprint,” Mrs Llodra said. “They have a wonderful program and the need is real and the benefits to participants are significant.”
Challenges exist, however. “We are doing what we are to support them but we have no obligation to house them. We are doing the best we can to help them find a location that is good for their uses, but also not too impactful to residents in that area.”
She said, “Our first obligation is to residents who live in the area. We are supportive of [LOF] but have to listen to residents.
The ski organization can “stay for the season, and for next few months,” work with the town to find another location, Mrs Llodra said. They would need to come to selectmen “again next year if they find town site they would like to use. They need permission to use the site and that requires conversation with the Board of Selectmen.”
LOF clinics poses “a change in use very noticeable to people who live on Bridge End Farm and they felt the quality of their life would be impacted and that’s something I have to listen to… everybody has a point of view to be heard and we are trying to value LOF and value point of view of residents,” Mrs Llodra said.