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Letter: Historical Society Presses On

Many months ago, the Woodbridge Board of Selectmen (BOS), acting on the recommendation of the First Selectman and the Town Attorney, countermanded a decision by the Amity and Woodbridge Historical Society (AWHS) Board of Directors in order to favor the interests of the tenant who was living in the caretaker cottage of the Thomas Darling Museum.  This decision was in direct violation of its long-term agreement with the town that gives it managerial authority over the museum site.  Since that time the AWHS has been asking for the BOS to return the caretaker residence to our use and to revise and strengthen the Agreement to make clear that the AWHS is the Town’s manager for the site.

After 10 months of meetings with members of the AWHS Board and its attorney, fruitless efforts to find alternative living and farming arrangements acceptable to the tenant, and hundreds of entreaties from the public and current and former legislators in the form of letters, public comments, and petitions, the Woodbridge BOS scheduled a special meeting on February 25 to vote on the matter.  Three entities were invited to give proposals:  The Historical Society, the farmer, and a third “interested party,” followed by discussion and Board vote.  Sadly, it was evident from the pre-scripted questions that were asked and the lack of interest in any aspect of our proposal that the complicated and lengthy motion made by the First Selectman was prepared in advance of the meeting before any presentations were made.

There were two aspects of the motion that appeared to comply with our request – to return the caretaker residence to us and to direct the town attorney (again) to work on a new, long-term agreement with the AWHS – yet most of the motion was designed to undermine and breach our current agreement with the town and eviscerate our role as the town’s designated agent and site manager.  Back in June Selectman Dey asked a question of his fellow selectmen which was, “Why are we not listening to the advice of our agents [the AWHS] for the property?  We believe the answer lies with the outsized and unmerited influence of individuals who seek to discredit the Society with inflammatory comments in public, in private, and on social media.

Although this issue began as a dispute over the caretaker residence, which will now be reclaimed by the AWHS in May, there are still larger and more complex issues in play that may have much more severe and long-lasting detrimental consequences for the use and preservation of the Site.  This latest motion fundamentally changed the definition of the Museum Property from what is in our agreement, both in writing and on a map, to give control over everything but the house and the caretaker cottage to an as-yet-undefined “Oversight Committee”.  This committee is the brainchild of two individuals who have sought to displace the AWHS in order to gain control of the site to further their own personal agendas by working behind the scenes with political contacts.

In discussions about the makeup and role of this Oversight Committee, it became clear that these two individuals would be given two of five seats on this committee while the AWHS would be relegated to a role of financier for the committee’s decisions.

The implication is that AWHS cannot manage the site.  If that were true, none of us would have anything to discuss now because there would be no museum site.  Breaking up the Museum site and assigning responsibility to different parties will do more harm than good.  At best, it will be very inefficient.  Worse, it will put decisions about preservation of the Site in the hands of people without the experience, knowledge, and resources of the AWHS.  We must work to reverse or modify this decision to keep it from doing more harm.

We are still unable to formally accept the state’s $48,000 Good to Great grant to make improvements to the museum because, although on paper our current long-term agreement satisfies the State’s requirements, the Town has repeatedly violated it, most recently in new, more serious ways such that we cannot be confident that we will be allowed to occupy the Thomas Darling property long enough to fulfill the terms of the grant or to merit a long-term investment from our treasury into the property.

We are disappointed in these new developments as the purpose of the Good to Great grant is to make innovative improvements to the museum that would allow it to become a destination site in CT, as the BOS stated was its specific wish for the property, and at no cost to taxpayers.  Unfortunately, even though the State has verified that they believe that the AWHS has maintained an outstanding example of a historic house museum with a worthy mission and a great track record of innovative programming, fiscal responsibility, and successful preservation, we have not been able to convince certain members of the BOS of the same thing.

The continuing narrative that we are unwilling to work with volunteers and incapable of caring for the buildings and grounds at the Darling Property is patently false.  Understand that our recommendations and choices are based on a plan for improved maintenance at the site, thus we had no choice but to part ways with individuals who were making it challenging to focus on and fulfill our mission.  First, we sought a new resident caretaker who would better fulfill the duties of that role.  Second, we parted ways with our volunteer historical consultant because not only was he actively attempting to undermine our relationship with the Town, his failure to follow through on promises was preventing us from completing necessary renovations to the buildings on the site.  Instead we sought out more expertise from Preservation Trust and the State Historic Preservation Office and had established a road map to submit grants for assessment as well as restoration of the buildings, as outlined in our proposal on the 25th.

The town continues to stymy us on our plans for improved management of the site but we are tired of waiting on their cooperation.  We must begin working on necessary restoration to the barn, as was brought to their attention by the AWHS at a site visit with the First Selectman and other town officials in the summer of 2018.  We will move forward with our plans to write a grant for the property, as it is in the best interests for the preservation of the site, and ask the Town, as the owners, to submit this $20,000 grant proposal for the pre-development work required for State Restoration Grant monies.  If they hold this grant up, as they are holding up the $48,000 Good to Great Grant, then the taxpayers as well as the site will suffer.

We regret that we still are not able to say the museum is out of danger, but we wish to thank everyone who called, wrote, testified, or signed a petition or petition letter.  With your continued support we shall continue to try to work with the town to further the best interests of the Thomas Darling Property.

Sincerely,

AWHS Board of Directors

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