During its first meeting since passing the town’s budget on May 8, Darien’s Representative Town Meeting gave their final approval on a number of capital projects planned for the 2017-18 fiscal year. Through a series of votes the legislative body approved a $6.3 million transfer to fund the renovation of the Darien Public Works Garage and allowed the Board of Finance to establish bonds for the renovation of the Darien High School cafeteria along with a new storage shed at DHS and a new generator for Town Hall.

But before approving the upcoming projects, the RTM was asked to approve a $1.35 million transfer to cover the final costs of “the Shuffle,” the project that moved the Board of Education’s central office to 35 Leroy Avenue and constructed the new Mather Center for Senior Activities. Though both facilities have been occupied for several years, true completion of the project has been held up by necessary renovations at 35 Leroy and ongoing litigation with some of the contractors

The project was initially approved with a budget of about $7 million in 2012 but suffered about $1.7 million in overages. Dappreio Construction and Development, the shuffle project’s original contractor, went bankrupt during the course of the project, forcing the town to take on additional expenses. In addition to paying certain fees multiple times, the town also faced higher costs than expected for engineering and architectural services, asbestos removal and other required functions. A state grant helped the town recoup $400,000 in expenses, leaving the RTM to approve the difference of $1,355,482.55.

“I think the end result of this entire shuffle project has left us with an absolutely beautiful senior center but I think it’s important that we learn from the past so we don’t repeat mistakes,” District 4 member Jim Cameron said on Monday.

Based on their experience with the Shuffle, town officials have taken a different approach to planning the Public Works Garage renovation. A seven-member building committee including members of the RTM, Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance was formed last summer to oversee the project planning.

The estimated cost of the project is $6,315,000, which includes the cost of construction as well as funding for insurance, permits, furniture, fixtures and other soft costs. As in prior discussions Public Works Director Ed Gentile and Town Administrator Kate Buch talked about the urgency of the project, as the portions of the garage floor are in danger of collapsing.

The garage houses the town’s maintenance vehicles and equipment and servers as a repair and fueling station for all town vehicles. Originally built in 1956, the structure has received a handful of updates over the years, including a 1993 expansion to house additional vehicles and equipment used by Board of Education employees and the Parks & Recreation Department. Gentile said the renovation was designed with a 20 to 25 year outlook and the building structure is expected to have a life expectancy of 50 to 100 years.

“I think this was probably one of the best project presentations that we’ve had. I think the tours they allowed to go through… it’s the first time anyone has ever seen the garage,” Dennis Maroney of RTM District 3 said. “I still think there’s a big price tag for a lot of people to question but I think the town officials and building committee should be commended for the way they did the process.”

As the most expensive planned project the garage garnered the most discussion on Monday but the vote was nearly unanimous in favor of moving forward. While the the Darien High School cafeteria was a hotly debated item during the budget process the Board of Education was granted the necessary funding without objection on Monday.

Old Town Hall Homes

The RTM also approved a 40-year tax abatement for the redevelopment of Old Town Hall Homes along with $360,000 towards the construction of the senior affordable housing complex. The abatement and funding come at the request of the Darien Housing Authority, a local organization dedicated to establishing affordable housing.

The Darien Housing Authority plans to demolish the existing buildings at 719 Post Road and construct a single-structure with more than 50 affordable apartments for senior residents. Their developer partner, the JHM Group, has estimated the cost of the project at $22 million and is working to secure funding from the state as well as private investors. The DHA has requested approximately eight million dollars in funding from the state for OTHH, while another $13 million is expected to come from private sector investments and equity.

While the $360,000 from the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund seems like just a drop in the bucket representatives for the DHA have said that financial investment from the town will better the project’s chances for state funding. Funding from the AHTF was approved with construction expected to start in October 2017, but town officials have already offered to extend the deadline until the DHA can secure state funding.

The DHA does not currently pay real estate taxes on the OTHH property, but would begin paying at a reduced rate on the redeveloped building. Under the abatement, the town will receive about $550,000 over the 40-year period, starting with a payment of $9,075 in February 2020 and increasing 2 percent annually. Additionally, the town will no longer cover sewer expenses for the development.

RTM members were in support of the abatement and the redevelopment overall, citing Darien’s need for both senior amenities and affordable housing. Darien is currently under a four-year moratorium on state statute 8-30g, which requires municipalities to at least 10 percent of their housing stock affordable. In order to maintain the moratorium the town must continue to add affordable housing and show progress towards the 10 percent minimum.

Though senior affordable housing is not valued with the same weight as standard family units the OTHH project will nearly double the number of apartments at the site and greatly improve conditions for the seniors living there. The DHA has committed to relocating the senior residents during the expected 18-month construction period.