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Status of Audubon House spurs debate

Published 10:30 am, Thursday, May 29, 2014
  • The Town Council voted May 21, 2014, to terminate a license with the New Canaan Audubon Society, which has ceased to exist, for the Audubon House, a small facility located across from the Visitors Center at the New Canaan Nature Center, in New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Nelson Oliveira / New Canaan News
    The Town Council voted May 21, 2014, to terminate a license with the New Canaan Audubon Society, which has ceased to exist, for the Audubon House, a small facility located across from the Visitors Center at the New Canaan Nature Center, in New Canaan, Conn. Photo: Nelson Oliveira

 

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The status of an approximate 15-by-30-foot building that's been neglected for nearly a decade was the focus of a heated debate at the latest Town Council meeting.

On May 21, the council voted to terminate a license the town had with the extinct New Canaan Audubon Society for the Audubon House -- a building t in the middle of the New Canaan Nature Center, across from the Visitors Center.

Audubon recently merged with the New Canaan Land Trust, which took ownership of the society's assets in February. By terminating the license, the town would be free to seek new arrangements and perhaps lease the building to any organizations, including the land trust or the nature center.

Chris Schipper, president of the land trust, told the council that though he was comfortable with the end of the license, his organization should have a say on the future use of the building.

"It is town owned. I recognize that," he said. "My concern in canceling this license agreement is: What are you going to offer in exchange?

"I understand the desire to create level playing field and yet if you cancel this, it levels the playing field not necessarily to the advantage of the land trust," Schipper added. "I feel that the history of this gift is important because it wasn't given to the Audubon society for nothing."

The town of New Canaan, which owns the nature center land, granted to the society in 1976 a revocable license for the use of the Audubon House. Under the agreement, "the town has the right to revoke the license for any reason upon delivery of written notice to the society," according to a letter by Doug Lomonte, an attorney for the town.

"Even if the Audubon Society was still in existence, we'd still have that right to terminate the license," Councilman Kathleen Corbet said.

In Lomonte's opinion, the best way to replace the current license would be with a lease for a fixed term of years, which, among other provisions, could assign responsibility for "fit-up work, maintenance, utilities, insurance, indemnification, and restrictions on assignment and subletting," he wrote.

First Selectman Robert Mallozzi said terminating the license also would allow the town to renovate the building, which he noted is "under horrible disrepair," and eventually consider future uses.

"We have a license that doesn't identify the town for anything," he said. "It doesn't talk about hazardous materials. It doesn't protect the town and the users to a degree that a lease will."

Councilman Kevin Moynihan took issue with the fact that terminating the license would change the land trust's rights to use the building.

"I understand the concerns about not having protections that we normally have with a lease, but we are doing something that affects someone else's rights without a clear understanding of what those rights are," Moynihan said.

Skip Hobbs, president of the Nature Center's board of trustees, said he would like the Nature Center to manage the building as it does other facilities on its campus.

"That building is in the center of our campus. It's been derelict for the past seven to 10 years. It's unusable," Hobbs said. "We can care for that building if it's under control by the Nature Center, maintained by the Nature Center and administered by the Nature Center."