Voting along party lines, the Board of Selectmen at its regular June meeting decided to overrule the request by Amity and Woodbridge Historical Society Board of Directors and continue the month-to-month lease agreement with Darling House caretaker Ethan Schneider.
The Historical Society has had a caretaker live in a cottage at the historic property on Litchfield Turnpike for the past 45 years or so, with Schneider moving in about four years ago. He had worked at Massaro Farm before that and he and two friends started farming the field in the back of the museum. The two friends have since moved on, but Schneider stayed and has a separate lease agreement with the town to cultivate the field until the end of 2019.
In a letter to the selectmen, the Historical Society Board of Directors comes to the conclusion that “a farmer’s focus and perspective on site use is legitimately different from that of the Society, which must fulfill its obligations to the Town to make the house, its outbuildings, and property a public benefit through the stewardship and programs it provides.”
There were issues like leaving the property exposed to inclement weather, causing pipes to burst, and allowing unauthorized visitors to the museum. In addition, the farming operation requires a whole lot more water and electricity than a simple caretaker would, a cost that the Historical Society had to absorb, at least in part.
Several longtime members of the board of directors were in the audience at the selectmen’s meeting, seeking the town’s support to replace the caretaker and change the lease agreement to clearly spell out the caretaking duties and separate them from the farming activity. “We have struggled for four years to get him to do what he is supposed to do,” said an exasperated chairman of the board, Alexia Belperron. “We do not trust him to do what’s in the best interest of the museum and our collection.”
Ethan Schneider was in the audience and also addressed the selectmen. He said his duties as a caretaker had never been clearly spelled out. He said his rent increased by $50 per month the first year, then, again the next and twice in 2018 to cover for the increased utilities. He said he reimbursed the Society for most of its expenses for water and electricity. Since they started talking about replacing him as a caretaker, he started putting the rent into a separate account.
He was supported by restoration specialist Leland Torrence, a town resident who has worked with the Historical Society. But on this issue, he parted ways with the board of directors. “Ethan is not liable for what he is being accused of,” he said.
Faced with what seemed an intractable situation, the Amity & Woodbridge Historical Society turned to the town to help them work out a resolution. First Selectman Beth Heller said they met with each of the parties separately, but had not brought them together.
That is when the Historical Society decided to bring up the issue during public comment. In some ways this created a perfect storm, as during public comment speakers are limited to two minute comments, which allowed neither the society nor the tenant to get their full statements across, and the selectmen had to deliberate based on the limited information they had received from letters submitted by both the tenant and the Historical Society.
Selectman David Lober took the position that the town should follow the request of the Historic Society. “We are taking their word that this tenant is worthwhile (when they introduce a tenant for approval),” he said. “Now we don’t want their opinion anymore,” he said.
Selectman Joe Dey took a similar stance. “I don’t know that we are here to have a trial over who’s right and who is wrong. But what we are here to do is give some respect and some credence to our agents, because that’s what they are,” he said, referring to the Historical Society.
Both Dey and Lober voted against continuing with the month-to-month lease.
Selectman Mica Cardozo was more cautious. “My sense is it’s not cut-and-dry,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”
Cardozo, Heller and Teri Schatz voted to keep the lease agreement in place and authorize the first selectman to continue in her effort to bring the parties to the table.
Communication Director Sheila McCreven confirmed that a meeting had taken place last week, and that progress has been made.
Part of the tension between the Historical Society and the town was exacerbated by a $25,000 grant the society was planning to apply for, with a June 30 deadline. The legal tangles left the Historical Society questioning its legal relationship with the town, and whether they would qualify for the grant.
Town Attorney Gerald Weiner had told them that the agreement between the Historical Society and the town was not a lease agreement – as it had been referred to – but rather an “agent agreement.” The only lease in this situation is that between the caretaker and the town as the owner of the property.
McCreven, who is also the town’s grant writer, said after the meeting that the long-standing agreement between the town and the Historical Society did qualify it for the grant. However, since the grant is for building improvements at the Darling House, the project may need a review by the Town Plan and Zoning Commission.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent