Has Rob Simmons forgotten his role in the decline of Forge Farm?
Are we going to keep digging up what happened in the past?
This outlandish question was the contribution of Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons at a recent meeting hosted by Connecticut Landmarks at their Forge Farm in Stonington, as they tried to reset community relations, while the attorney general's office investigates the nonprofit's stewardship of the historic Al Harvey Road property bequeathed to them, along with an endowment for its care.
Simmons made his forget-the-past comment at a meeting in which local residents were finally able to vent their frustration at the condition of Forge Farm, left empty after a tenant, the popular community farming organization Terra Firma, moved out, saying the house was no longer habitable.
In a similar meeting Monday in East Haddam, trying to mend fences in a town where two Landmarks properties have deteriorated and not opened regularly to the public for years, Landmarks officials also fielded a lot of angry complaints.
Frederick C. Copeland Jr., chairman of Landmarks Board of Trustees, said in both meetings that investments are planned for all the properties in Stonington and East Haddam and suggested they will try to build trust with the communities. There were no apologies, though, for how things unraveled so horribly.
Generally, I like the idea of not dwelling on the past and looking positively to the future.
In this case, though, the attorney general's wide-ranging investigation into Landmarks' use of charitable gifts at all its properties is continuing. No one should forget the past in this case, until we know more about exactly what happened and learn whether the attorney general finds that Landmarks has misused charitable gifts.
Would the first selectman be as quick to absolve alleged wrongdoers charged by Stonington police, as they await adjudication of their cases, as he is to forgive and forget what was done by the prominent and politically connected people in charge of Landmarks?
What was most egregious about Simmons' plea to the people of his town to forget the past is that he had such a prominent role in what one former Landmarks trustee described as Landmarks' "self vandalism" of Forge Farm.
Indeed, Simmons was a Landmarks trustee at the time the wooden roof, one hand crafted in a careful 1987 restoration of the house, was ripped off and replaced with asphalt. He was a trustee when the restoration wooden windows were replaced with ill-fitting white vinyl ones.
Apparently because Forge Farm is in his town, a fellow trustee of Simmons' wrote to him in February 2009, pleading that he personally intercede to help Landmarks correct its mistakes with the vinyl windows and asphalt roof and to try to mend the relationship with Forge Farm.
"Our lease agreement with (Terra Firma) is up for renewal. Terra Firma is rightly concerned that the attitude of the Connecticut Landmarks staff, at the highest level, may indicate trouble ahead in the upcoming lease negotiations, and threaten the productive partnership we worked out five years ago to fulfill (Landmarks') obligation to preserve the house and property," trustee Lee Kuckro wrote in his plea to Simmons to help.
To this day, of course, the vinyl windows and asphalt roof remain and the nonprofit Terra Firma, which hosted hundreds of schoolchildren at its education programs at Forge Farm, has moved from Stonington to North Stonington.
It no longer operates its community agriculture program at Forge Farm, selling its produce in weekly shares. That void is being filled by Stone Acres, the Simmons family farm on North Main Street, barely a tractor ride away.
Since the attorney general's investigation began, Landmarks has abandoned its original plan to sell Forge Farm and keep its endowment. They have hired a company to do work on the house, including replacing 22 modern vinyl windows with more visually appropriate thermal pane windows and installing wooden gutters. Copeland said about $120,000 has been allocated for exterior work.
But Copeland also said they plan to make the property "rentable." The plan is apparently to modernize the house, collect rent and keep the endowment.
This hardly seems to respect the wishes of Charles and Virginia Berry, who instructed the house be "maintained as an example of early American architecture." Evidently it might be early American architecture with granite counters and maybe air conditioning.
Of course the obvious solution is to bring back Terra Firma to run its programs for schoolchildren at the farm, a reminder of the many town children whom Virginia Berry taught to ride horses there. Terra Firma's director has said she might be interested in new arrangements at Forge Farm.
In East Haddam this week, Landmarks also got complaints about the asphalt roof on its Palmer-Warner House. Copeland said several times that the roof was installed when the donor who gave the house 13 years ago was still alive.
He stopped saying that when a town resident corrected him and said it was installed by Landmarks recently, that he saw it being put on while driving by.
Both Copeland and Sheryl Hack, Landmarks executive director, said no money from the fund given to support the Palmer-Warner House was used in Landmarks' new headquarters in Hartford.
Asked about a sign at the new headquarters thanking the estate of the Palmer-Warner donor, Hack said that sign was meant to generally thank all Connecticut Landmarks donors not just those who gave for the headquarters.
But that doesn't make sense, given that the Palmer-Warner donor was thanked in the category of giving $250,000 to $500,000, far less than his total donation to Landmarks. Also the sign, with the heading "Thank You," is clearly naming a few dozen donors for that project, since it cites the specific funding for the headquarters, for instance, from the state, the city of Hartford and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
It surely wouldn't be possible to list the many people who have given money over time. Why single out one donor from 13 years ago on that thank you plaque in your new headquarters unless his estate was used for that?
The answers from Hack and Copeland didn't strike me as an encouraging sign on Landmarks' make-amends tour.
It certainly doesn't make me want to forget the past.
This is the opinion of David Collins
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