Plans for Events Venue in Madison Face Opposition from Neighbors

Credit Google Map Data, 2024


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MADISON — A philanthropic foundation wants to rehab a dilapidated house in a residential neighborhood to create a venue for events and a cultural center but neighbors say the rural area is neither appropriate nor able to support commercial activities. 

The 1720 house at 6 Opening Hill Road was once the home of Emily Hall Tremaine, who lived on the originally 76-acre property with her husband, Burton Tremaine Sr., from 1945 until her death in 1987, when the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation was founded. Tremaine Sr. acquired the property through a previous marriage in 1938. After his death in 1991, Burton Tremaine Jr. subdivided the acreage and retained 6.2 acres around the house, which had been modernized with additions designed by prominent architects of the era. 

“We’ve really been trying to work with the neighbors because we anticipated this might be well-received, because we’re trying to do things that are just in sitting with the spirit of the property and the tone of the property in the neighborhood,” foundation President Michelle Knapnik told CT Examiner.

The foundation purchased the property in February 2022 for $923,613 after Bank of America foreclosed in November 2019, according to town records. Knapnik said that creating an educational and cultural center would reflect the spirit of the Tremaines, who hosted famous artists of the day and amassed a large collection of contemporary art that was eventually sold to fund the foundation. A new generation of Tremaines are now on the board, she said, who want to bring the property to its former glory. 

But neighboring property owners have sounded the alarm that allowing a zoning special exception for the project would transform the quiet, rural neighborhood into a mixed-use, commercial area, potentially setting a “very dangerous precedent” for other residentially zoned neighborhoods in town, according to Jeffrey Capone, who lives across the street. 

“They’re trying to say, ‘Look what we’re bringing to Madison.’ No, you’re not. You’re coming to Madison for tax purposes. From a historical perspective, the family did live there for a number of decades. What they don’t talk about is the traffic that this will create. … They want to have temporary housing, permanent housing and guest housing on the property. They want to have a gallery store. They want to hold meetings for small, medium and very large gatherings. They want to put a service kitchen on the property. They want to hold weddings on the property,” Capone said.

He and a group of neighbors have retained legal counsel, who, according to Capone, calculated that between the permanent staff on site, artist residencies, events and services like tent rentals, temporary toilets, and trash removal, approximately 8,500 vehicles will travel to and from the property in the course of a year. 

“On a rural, narrow, winding road with blind curbs, in a highly desirable fully residential community — this is absurd,” he said. “This is why there are commercial business zones to accommodate this kind of traffic. Not here. We made sacrifices in our lives so our families could live a tranquil, safe and peaceful lifestyle. … We pay a premium in property taxes to live here and now we find ourselves in the fight of our lives to maintain what we’ve worked so hard and so long to enjoy.”

The application for the project includes the allowance of meetings for up to 12 people, with no limit on the number of meetings for “exhibits, lectures, discussions, meetings, conferences, retreats, seminars; tours; artist, architect and designer studios; incubator space for aspiring artists, architects, and designers.” Also included are “philanthropic and educational gatherings” of up to 25 people, limited to four per month, and events of up to 150 people, limited to three per year. 

At the town’s Economic Development Commission meeting on April 15, Chair Andrew Wood supported the project, saying that “having the foundation housed in Madison will create a destination for learning and research and could put Madison on the map on a national scale. Saving and restoring this historical structure and taking it to the next level will create a leading design in Madison and activities will bring people to town to stay and play.”

The commission voted unanimously to authorize Wood to write a letter to the Planning and Zoning Commission supporting the foundation’s application for a special exception.

Knapnik said the 40-year-old foundation has a $90 million endowment and awards between $4 million and $5 million per year in grants, distributing more than $100 million into three program areas: arts, education (specifically learning differences) and environmental causes. 

“We’ve always been a foundation that has supported mission-based work through ‘convenings’ of diverse minds and people who come at things through different lenses —  cultural, educational, environmental. … Being able to hold ‘convenings’ that we feel are at an appropriate scale for the property has been part of the vision,” she said. “We think small-scale meetings like 12 people or less will not have a big imprint on the neighborhood.”

Regarding gatherings, Knapnik noted that the neighborhood zoning allows for a special exception for philanthropic and educational uses. 

“The special exception looks at the conditions around the uses so that it is appropriate. And so we’ve been trying to understand what the neighbors’ concerns are so we really accommodate them within these conditions that would be set out in the Statement of Use,” she said. 

Knapnik said the foundation will continue to listen to neighbors’ concerns, but also acknowledged the support of the broader community for the project.

“We feel like we’ve tried to accommodate their requests and we are empathetic to their concerns. … We would love this to be a place where these contemplative spaces offer all kinds of value to the people who will be coming to the site and to the neighborhood and to the town. That was the spirit of intention and we understand that any disruption does not feel good. We have an open door policy of wanting to work with the neighbors here,” she said. 

But other neighbors, including John and Carolyn Dugan, have sent emails to First Selectman Peggy Lyons, Town Planner Erin Mannix, and the Board of Selectmen strongly opposing the project. 

In a May 14 email, the Dugans said the project raises issues of water supply, destruction of wildlife habitat, commercial signage in a residential neighborhood, potential noise and light pollution created by 150-person events, danger to on-site wetlands through construction runoff and sewage load. 

“That the Foundation would submit an application with such enormous and radical changes to the property reflects a degree of arrogance and insensitivity which makes it unlikely that the Foundation will feel bound by whatever limits on its activities may be agreed to,” the Dugans wrote. 

They also said there was no effective means of monitoring and enforcing the limits of event attendees and the number and frequency of events, among other details. 

“The Foundation’s activities will constitute a neighborhood nuisance which will interfere with quiet enjoyment of our property and all of our neighbors’ properties, and adversely affect our quality of life,” they wrote.

The letter also included objections to the increase in traffic, the effect on property values and the resulting “erosion of the Madison residential property tax base,” as well as the undermining of Madison’s economy.

A public hearing on the project is scheduled for May 16 at 6 p.m. at Meeting Room C, Hammonasset Room, Town Campus, 8 Campus Drive, and also on Zoom.