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With no proposal, former Cohanzie School could face demolition

By Julianne Hanckel

Publication: The Day

Published October 15. 2012 4:00AM   Updated October 15. 2012 2:20PM

Waterford - The State Historic Preservation Office has said that the town should allow six weeks for the submission of a redevelopment proposal for the former Cohanzie School, but, if at the end of those six weeks one does not come, the school will be demolished.

If no redevelopment proposal is submitted to the town by the close of business on Nov. 16, the historic preservation office has said two actions must take place before demolition can occur.

First, the Department of Economic and Community Development and the town must conduct a professional state-level photographic and narrative documentation of the school that is consistent with the State Historic Preservation Office.

Second, the town must also prepare an interpretive exhibit on the historic transition from one-room school houses to consolidated district schools, which began around 1911 with the Jordan School.

The SHPO recommended that the Waterford Historical Society participate in the preparation of the exhibit, which may be displayed at the Town Hall, the Historical Society or another appropriate site mutually acceptable to both parties.

"I was a little surprised frankly that the preservation people were giving such a relatively short period of time for the submission of a proposal," Robert Nye, town clerk and municipal historian, said Wednesday. "However, given the fact that the school has been vacant for several years and the town has tried to market it, and there's been some vandalism there, it is a little bit of a liability."

Nye worked earlier this year to have the 9-acre site on Dayton Road placed on the State Register of Historic Places and it was added to the register this June.

First Selectman Daniel Steward said Wednesday that the historic designation has caused a "hold-up" in the release of nearly $500,0000 that was awarded to the town by the state this spring for demolition and asbestos removal on the school property.

In an Oct. 5 letter to DECD, Daniel Forrest, deputy state historic preservation officer, said that public interest in the school is "best served when these buildings are occupied and maintained such that they contribute to the community's sense of place and history."

A public meeting was held last month so residents and others could comment on the potential demolition of the property. Forrest said on Wednesday that most of the comment at that meeting centered around residents feeling that the building had sat for too long without any action.

"If we assume there are no feasible proposals that come forward, we can expect that DECD will go forward and then the project itself would go forward as part of remediation," Forrest said. "We always hope for a building like that to be preserved, but the town has done quite a bit of work to figure out what to do to no avail, so this is the last opportunity for someone to come forward."

Rory Oefinger, a Westerly, R.I., optometrist and real estate developer, has expressed interest in the property but said on Wednesday that he's abandoned the idea because he feels "micro-managed."

He never formally submitted a redevelopment plan to the town or the state.

"Dealing with the town and the historic society and the state simultaneously is almost impossible for an individual investor," Oefinger said. "It's way too complicated and there are too many rules, regulations and constraints for me to get involved with that kind of deal."

He said he would be interested in purchasing the property after the demolition and that as part of his proposal, he would strongly consider keeping the original 1923 portion. In 1956 and 1972 the school added classrooms, a cafeteria, kitchen and gymnasium to the original part of the school.

"This would be by far the biggest project for me. I just can't take the financial risk because it could break me financially. We're talking about millions of dollars here," he said.

Nye said that he specifically worked to add the site to the historic register because with that designation, comes restoration funding and tax credits. He also agreed with Oefinger's frustrations.

"You almost need to hire someone who is part of a team that is proficient in all of the paperwork. It's not something someone could do on their own. Unfortunately, it's just too complex," Nye said.

Steward said that there has not been any further interest expressed in the redevelopment property outside of Oefinger's proposal.

j.hanckel@theday.com

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