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Is Old Saybrook really looking for a fight with Ellis family over zoning issue?

Old Saybrook — News item: The town of Old Saybrook's Zoning Commission is suing town residents John and Jane Ellis, who have dedicated most of their lives to helping cancer victims and their families through the Connecticut Sports Foundation.

The town is home to the Foundation's recently built home office building at 15 North Main St. A Durham-based landscaper offered its time and services to enhance the patio area, building a makeshift (and quite clever) baseball diamond made of bricks, which people can purchase at varying levels to help the Foundation. Many donors already have.

The Zoning Commission has ruled that the brick diamond violates the town's zoning codes, telling the Ellis family that because it wasn't part of the original site plan, grass needs to be planted there instead.

This gets better (or worse). Jane Ellis asked the town to work with her and the Foundation to amend the site plan and even offered to use mediation to do so. Not only is the Zoning Commission not amenable to discussion, but has decided to sue its own Board of Appeals, which sided with the Ellis family's original appeal.

To recap: Zoning Commission members believe bricks that ultimately help cancer patients have no place on the sidewalks of Old Saybrook and will not give the Foundation a permanent Certificate of Occupancy.

You can't make this up.

Jane Ellis, in her own words: "I honestly didn't know we needed approval. I thought I was beautifying the area and doing something nice for cancer patients. Torrison (Stone and Garden of Durham) donated everything. I thought it was fantastic. The town didn't see it that way. They want us to tear this out to get our permanent (Certificate of Occupancy). We've been fighting this now for I can't tell you how many meetings."

More from Ellis:

"We went to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The Commission told the members they could be personally sued if they voted in favor of this. They were brave enough to vote 'yes' on our behalf. The Commission said the Board of Appeals didn't have the authority here and are suing their own Board of Appeals and us."

The Ellis family and their attorneys have what they believe is their last chance to reason with the Zoning Commission at its next meeting on Wednesday night, mostly to avoid court and having to use donor dollars for legal fees.

"We don't want to go to court," she said. "We even went to meditation and said we would alter the brick diamond and bring it back five feet. We were open to discuss other ideas as well. They wouldn't even mediate."

John Ellis, a New London native who played with the Yankees, a man whose personal relationships have been responsible for a wildly successful annual celebrity gala at Mohegan Sun, just shakes his head at all this.

"For Jane to be denied the right to have her site plan amended, or even talk about it," he said, "it's hard to believe. It's not infringing on anything. Plus, our attorneys have cited three other buildings in the vicinity (including a Dunkin' Donuts) where they've allowed concrete and not grass in the front of their buildings since they disapproved us."

Surely, residents of Old Saybrook — and many others who appreciate the work the Foundation has done — need to be heard. Loudly and clearly. Surely, Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna needs to be heard on this. Mr. Fortuna needs to inform his Zoning Commission this was an honest mistake and that productive discussion must happen forthwith.

Because if the Commission members and Mr. Fortuna think I'm the only media guy who is going to weigh in on this, they've underestimated the tentacles connected to the good work of the Foundation and the good names of John and Jane Ellis. And the more the lunacy of this story is shared, the bigger the stain on the town, not to mention the dizzying levels of callousness required to deny cancer patients the money they need.

Does Old Saybrook want national acclaim as The Town That Hates Cancer Patients?

Already, the new Foundation building has been used for an art exhibit, an Eat Well/Live Well seminar, a wine tasting and a night with Chris Berman who talked about the history of ESPN. All community events to help cancer patients.

"We live in Old Saybrook. I don't think the taxpayers would appreciate their tax money being spent suing a charity and suing their own Board of Appeals," Jane Ellis said. "I feel like we're being harassed now. We even planted trees we didn't need because the Commission asked us to. We just want to come to some sort of agreement."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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