In the most widely attended Town Meeting in recent years, Suffield residents shot down, by a margin of 321 votes to 134, a proposal that would have sold town property but renovated a beloved old school, as well as bring apartments and some retail to the Town Center area.
First Selectman Ed McAnany pitched the proposal as a way to satisfy resident requests to save the decaying 1924 Bridge Street School building, as well as bring funds to the town to make capital improvements such as Americans with Disabilities Act compliance at the town library.
“We have lost other buildings of a historic nature,” McAnany explained. “The town has a history of eliminating these buildings.... If we want to preserve the building, we have to take steps to do that... there’s nothing magic about this parcel. ”
The school has been closed for eight years now, and is used for library storage and occasionally for police training. Water damage plagues the building, as do other maintenance issues. It would cost the town $250,000 to raze the building and upwards of $2 to $3 million to renovate, according to McAnany.
But the Suffield High School auditorium was filled to capacity with many people who felt the town should keep valuable property in the center with the future in mind.
“It’s magic because it’s open land and it needs to stay that way,” said one resident in the audience during an hour-long question and answer session before the vote.
Thunderous applause resulted after one resident after another stood up to question the sale and object to the proposal. An overwhelming amount who spoke referenced renovating the school for possible future use and keeping the park space as is.
Others mentioned not wanting a sizable apartment complex in town, as well as the desire to keep Suffield from “turning into Enfield.”
Lexintgon Partners LLC owner Kenny Martin and New England Construction representatives held two Town Meetings in recent months to explain a plan for the 3.4 acre parcel. It would have renovated the existing Bridge Street School and also build a 65-unit apartment property in a new three-story, horseshoe-shaped structure built on the open field. The proposal also called for 2,000 square feet of retail on the north side of the school building.
After a long night of long lines to receive a ballot, hear presentations and sometimes heated discussion, the question was called by an audience member at 8:35 p.m. After several objected to not having their chance to speak, the motion to vote was seconded and carried. Hundreds lined up to cast a yes or no ballot in one of two boxes at the front of the room.
Many residents left the meeting complaining about the process.
“This is why the Town Meeting form of government has to go,” said one man leaving the building. "No one came here with an open mind tonight."
Still, Selectman Tim Reynolds said he respected the opinion of those who opposed the project.
"I think we saw democracy at its best on Thursday night. I was very happy to see the large turnout for such an important issue,” he said Friday morning.
Reynolds, however, believes the proposal would have been good for the town.
“It would have added to the town center and opened up a market for residences that the town doesn’t really have at this time," he said. "The school would have also been preserved. I’m concerned that future development such as Pfyler Place could be stymied because developers may get the perception that Suffield is too tough a town to work with.”