Lease debate causes tempers to flare

The status of the lease for the Mianus River Boat and Yacht Club remains in flux.—Ken Borsuk photo

The status of the lease for the Mianus River Boat and Yacht Club remains in flux.
—Ken Borsuk photo

Frustration is growing over a lack of action on the lease between the town and the Mianus River Boat and Yacht Club.

Tempers are starting to flare in public meetings as the lease remains in limbo while a Representative Town Meeting (RTM) subcommittee looks at town lease policy and the head of that subcommittee was expected to address the Board of Selectmen at its meeting this morning. This appearance by RTM member Erf Porter comes one week after the subcommittee came under heavy criticism by the board and boat club members.

In January, the RTM voted to not consider the boat club’s lease with the town, which is up for renewal, and instead refer it back to the body’s Finance and Legislative and Rules committees to examine the policy of leasing town properties to people or groups, which some members say does not exist. This move brought the body into conflict with the selectmen, who claimed there is an existing policy in place by which the board looks at each lease on its individual merits and then sends it to the RTM for final approval.

Since then the special subcommittee was created by those committees to draft a policy on town leases, and the selectmen have also formalized onto paper the policy they have been using. But still there has been no decision on the specific boat club lease by the RTM, and with the subcommittee still working on drafts of its mission statement, it is unclear if it will be done in time for the RTM’s April meeting, leaving June as the next possible date.

At the March 11 RTM meeting, a motion was made by Selectman Drew Marzullo asking that the subcommittee be discharged and the lease be brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote. That motion failed by a 60-122 margin with one abstention, but not before an angry verbal clash on the floor between RTM moderator Tom Byrne and RTM member Christopher von Keyserling over procedure, when both men visibly lost their tempers. Mr. von Keyserling, like Mr. Marzullo, said it was unfair to “hold hostage” the boat club lease by making it wait for the RTM and urged forming a new committee to look at policy while allowing this vote to proceed.

“Do not hold our constituency, the people that we serve, hostage to a battle between us and the selectmen,” Mr. von Keyserling said, noting the strong support from the RTM committees in favor of the lease as well as the repeated assurances by subcommittee members that their work was not a reflection on the club but rather the policy.

Mr. von Keyserling also objected to the makeup of the subcommittee, which he said was done outside typical RTM procedure, since the two committees and not the body as a whole selected the members, including several proponents of the original motion to refer the lease back.

“I would think that is not a balanced and fair committee,” Mr. von Keyserling said. “It certainly wasn’t taken so by your constituents.”

This brought Mr. von Keyserling into conflict with Mr. Byrne, who accused him of being out of order in his comments and not giving others, including himself, a chance to speak. Previously in the meeting, Mr. Byrne stepped out of his typically impartial role as moderator to urge the body to vote against Mr. Marzullo’s motion. Mr. Byrne agreed with Legislative and Rules Committee Chairman Doug Wells, who said that the body should have been given more notice by Mr. Marzullo that the motion was coming and that it was important to let the subcommittee complete its work first.

“There’s a lot of concern that this lease was being looked at individually and not as part of a policy concerning leases within the town, which we had asked the Board of Selectmen to adopt over a year ago,” Mr. Wells said, later adding, “I’m not sure why it is that there is now this insistence on going forward on the lease. There’s been no further explanation as to why this is suddenly an emergency.”

All this came after the March 7 Board of Selectmen meeting, where the board as well as boat club members expressed their unhappiness with how things have been proceeding. The selectmen unanimously formalized the policy they had been using to consider the leases on a case-by-case basis and then referring them to the RTM while questioning why this policy was no longer sufficient.

“The town has a long and rich tradition of providing $1-a-year leases to community organizations and nonprofits for the purpose of meeting a public need,” First Selectman Peter Tesei said. “I was reminded of this in a conversation I just had with former Selectman Peter Crumbine, who said, ‘I always looked at the dollar-a-year leases as a way of supporting the community through private means at no cost to the town.’ He served 10 years on this board and on the RTM, and his perspective is consistent with what many of us believe.”

This stems from a sense-of-the-meeting resolution passed by the RTM asking for a universal policy on leases, but Mr. Tesei stressed that action was nonbinding and that he had still taken much of what the body had suggested for the selectmen’s policy and implemented it. He insisted that it remain on a case-by-case basis because no two leases and the circumstances behind them were identical, and he said this was an issue of members of the RTM attempting to force their wishes on the selectmen, which he said was “not good governance.”

Selectman David Theis continued to express frustration that the boat club lease was not going forward, saying it was unfair to do this to the club after all it had done to transform unwanted land into a resource for residents who otherwise might not be able to afford the fees at other town clubs. He said the lease was a show of the Greenwich spirit and a prime example of the good of public/private partnerships.

“Where was this committee 20 years ago when this group of people took a mud flat next to a sewer treatment plant and made something good out of it?” Mr. Theis asked. “I believe this is a little bit of an overreach and inherently unfair.”

Club members also did not mince words in comments to the selectmen.

“We got blindsided by all of this,” Bill Ingraham said. “We thought we had done everything we needed to do to allow this lease to continue and we were told that we were perfect tenants and this wasn’t personal, but they didn’t like a list of 10 items. They said we weren’t being transparent. We were told by [one RTM member] that her brother should be able to move to town, put down whatever money it takes and go to the head of the list to get a boat space. And then somehow all the people who told us those crazy things ended up on this committee. Talk about a stacked deck. There’s no doubt about it in my mind.”

Mr. Ingraham said he believed members of the RTM who are against $1 leases have “teamed up” with people who want changes in the wait lists for slips by having higher prices and open bidding to go “on a witchhunt for boat clubs.”

Frank Mazza, a former selectman as well as a member of the RTM and Board of Estimate and Taxation, urged the selectmen to take a “strong stand” on this issue.

“The people on this RTM committee, frankly, are scary,” Mr. Mazza said. “I’ve been to most of their meetings, and what they come up with are really to me amazing in terms of what we have done in this town and what we have brought up in the past and why we have done these things. If you look at these dollar leases, every one of them has given great value to the town of Greenwich. When I go to a meeting and hear an RTM member say, ‘When I put up the most money I should get a boat slip,’ that’s not what it’s about.”

Mr. Theis added, “I think we have a perspective on this board that some others might not have in that we’re all multi-generational members of the community and we’ve always appreciated and respected all that Greenwich does and has done for everybody who lives in this town. As long as I’m sitting here, I’m going to want to preserve the nature and integrity of this town so everybody has a place to go and be welcome. I think there’s some elitism creeping in here, and it’s not fair and it’s not just and it’s against the basic-nature integrity and history of our great town.”

When the subcommittee met on March 8, the day after this selectmen’s meeting, members expressed irritation about how their work was being perceived, particularly over Mr. Theis’ remarks about elitism. They stressed this was not a reflection of the boat club but what they feel is a lack of policy in the town. John Dolan said he took exception to the idea that they were “all about raising money and funds,” which he felt needlessly stirred the pot.

“This suggests we are going down a path different than what we are actually doing, and I think that’s inappropriate,” Mr. Dolan said.

Mr. Dolan also said he was pleased that the selectmen finally had a policy on record. He and Mr. Porter did express optimism that the selectmen and the RTM were not far apart in being able to reach an agreement on policy.

Mr. Porter is set to make a presentation to the selectmen at their meeting this morning, March 14, at 10. The subcommittee will then meet later in the day, at 3 in the Gisborne Room.

 

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