RTM to review Abilis’ lease, selectmen show support for group

The Board of Selectmen has reaffirmed its support for Abilis to continue leasing town property for a residency in Cos Cob. Now it’s crossing its fingers that the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) will do the same.

At it’s Aug. 9 meeting, the board gave its formal approval to extending the 10-year lease between the town and Abilis for the property at 101 Orchard Street, which is used as a group residency for women in the program. Abilis is not a town program, but rather a non-profit that, among its other programs, helps people with developmental disabilities live independently and get jobs in the community. Like other non-profits in town it leases property from the town at below market rate, and the first 10-year lease on it, which was signed in 2002, expires this year.

While the belief of the selectmen and the Planning and Zoning Commission is that the automatic trigger in the lease that allows it to roll over for another 10 years has been met, the RTM wants to review the arrangement between the town and Abilis as part of a larger overview of town leases. The body passed a sense of the meeting resolution back in June to evaluate town property leases and this lease will be the first on the RTM will look at.

“I fully expect, and hope, that they see the many positive benefits that Abilis has provided to the building and to the people who live there,” First Selectman Peter Tesei said.

In offering strong support for Abilis, Selectman Drew Marzullo expressed reservation that bringing this before the RTM could turn into an unnecessary and invasive examination of the organization, which he called “extraordinary,” and the below market rate lease.

“I don’t see why this has to be vetted in front of 230 people, subjecting Abilis to all this scrutiny,” Mr. Marzullo said. “To me it’s clear that this is an automatic extension that’s being exercised. The RTM has every right to do this, but I have concerns about them doing it.”

However, Gordon Ennis, chairman of the RTM’s Finance Committee, said that there’s nothing to fear. He said the RTM was fully behind Abilis as an organization and that the members just wanted a chance to publicly show how they will evaluate leases going forward.

“We have no objection to the lease,” Mr. Ennis told the Post last week. “In fact Abilis is such a strong candidate that this is a great way to introduce the process we’re going to be using to evaluate leases. I know of no sentiment in the RTM to deny a lease renewal for Abilis.”

The sense of the meeting resolution says that without a “clearly articulated policy” on leases there can’t be accountability to the public. The resolution also expressed concern from the body that there is no detailed chain of command for real property use agreements and that language in the town charter that gives the RTM approval of all leases and management agreements involving town property is not being complied with. Mr. Ennis said that establishing these policies, which include a presentation to the RTM, will allow for better accountability and understanding in regard to the leasing of town property.

The lease is expected to be on the call for the RTM’s Sept. 17 meeting, and the Finance Committee will take the lead on the lease presentation to the full body. This will be one of 31 properties the RTM will eventually review the leases for, according to Town Administrator John Crary.

“Essentially they want to identify the properties, identify the terms of the agreements, create an abstract which identifies everything in the creation of a lease, identify who in the town is responsible for administering it and who is making sure the terms of the lease are actually being complied with, who inspects it and, when a decision is made to lease to a not for profit, determine what is the public benefit of doing that,” Mr. Crary said. “They wanted documentation of why the town is not getting market rate for particular properties.”

The selectman did not need to take a formal vote on extending the lease for 10 more years since it had been determined the requirements for the trigger, which included not making any major changes to the agreement or the residence, had been met. This was first discussed in late July by the selectmen and then referred to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which also gave its approval. But the selectmen did vote unanimously to “affirm its support in a very public way” for continuing the lease.

“All three of us feel strongly this is a great use of the property,” Mr. Tesei said.

Mr. Tesei said the RTM would review the lease no matter what action the selectmen took so he wanted to get the board’s feelings on the record.

“Abilis has been an excellent tenant for the facility,” Mr. Tesei said. “It has invested several hundreds of thousands of dollars in the renovation of the house. It’s well maintained. I think of it like a little tree house in the woods. You don’t even know it’s there.”

He added that every town department that has worked with Abilis on the residence had sent back “stellar” reports.

Selectman David Theis said he “enthusiastically” approved moving this on and that he felt with the selectmen’s support it would provide “more clarity” to the RTM.

Laurel Ross, Abilis’ executive director, told the selectmen that the residence had become “a real place of joy” for the women living there and that it allows them, many of whom have families dating back generations in Greenwich, to remain town residents.

“For their families, to have them live in their own community is so meaningful and important to them,” Ms. Ross said. “The house is just full of joy and the women really call it home. This contemporary house had been sitting there and we really turned it into something. Now it’s a thriving residence and a real source of pride for us all.”

Local attorney Thomas Heagney, who is representing Abilis, added that the original lease, which included the automatic renewal trigger, was the result of more than a year of negotiation with the town back in 2001 and 2002. He said that Abilis made available $500,000 to allow residents to be able to move in and the organization spends close to $15,000 annually for upkeep “to maintain its quality condition.”

Mr. Heagney said that Abilis was “looking forward to the next 10 years and hopefully a longer period of time.”

“We want to be able to continue to provide this great opportunity for our fellow town residents,” Mr. Heagney said, later adding that Abilis wanted to “act in a cooperative fashion” with any town agency on renewing the lease.

Several residents of the Orchard Street house turned out for the meeting and spoke briefly to the selectmen about how much they loved their home and the Abilis program. The selectmen thanked them for taking time out of their schedule to make the meeting and Mr. Theis, who lives close to the residence, praised them for “making a great contribution to our community” through their employment at local businesses.


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