STRATFORD - It was a standing-room only situation in the Stratford City Council chambers when the council met for its regular monthly session Monday..
About 45 local residents attended because of their interest in an issue that involves a clash between a longtime local businessman and the council. Earlier this summer, Keith Carlson filled in an outside basement entrance to the building he owns at 801 Shakespeare St. and planted flowers there, after submitting a building permit that was approved by the city council. Since the staircase is on city property, an easement was granted for the staircase years ago. But when the railing surrounding the staircase was removed and the staircase filled in, the easement was voided.
At its July meeting, the council ordered the flowers removed and the site be cemented and compacted per city code by Sept. 15, citing their concern for the city's liability since the flower bed is now on city property.
Plenty of those who turned out for Monday's meeting were in support of Carlson and his flowers. Dirk Westrum spoke for the Stratford Development Corporation, which had requested a variance to the ordinance against Carlson having flowers beside his building.
"It's time to put this behind us," he said. "We feel it's gotten to be a much bigger deal than it should be."
Ilo Stark, a retiree who lives in Stratford, was one of many who spoke in favor of leaving the flowers, but council members kept returning to the responsibility of the city for the flower bed. Councilwoman Julie Ehresman voiced her concern that no one has contacted her since the last council meeting to find out why the council made the decision it did.
"Many have opinions about this, but they don't have the whole story," she said. "You should do that before you write a letter. We can tell you what happened at the council meeting, but not one person has approached me and asked about what has gone on."
Mayor Mike Neperney agreed about the letters, saying "These letters to the editor, there is not one of them that's entirely accurate. Things are getting a little carried away."
Responding to sentiment in the room that Carlson is an employer and has done a lot for the community in the 36 years he has been in business, Ehresmann said, "It's not a question of whether we like Keith or we don't. Should we give someone the right to put a flower garden on public property? We are all public servants and here for the best interest of all of the residents. I don't think you want a council who does favors for our friends."
"The bottom line is that it's the city council who is responsible," said City Council member Rick Woodard. "It still gets back to facts. If it's not addressed now, it's probably going to be a problem in the future. And the city will be responsible."
Jan Johnson was the lone individual at the meeting who indicated she understood the position of the council and the mayor. "I totally agree with the council," she said. "If that wall falls in and the building collapses, the owner will come back on the city."
After more than an hour of the exchange between the council and residents at Monday's meeting, Neperney asked all those in favor of the flowers to raise their hand. A strong majority of those in the room raised their hands.
In the end, the council tabled action on the matter until its September meeting.
One reason they did so was to give the new council member a chance to get up to speed on the matter. After the July meeting, council member Aaron Bradley submitted his resignation, so the council had to appoint someone to fill out his term until the November election. Three individuals indicated their interest, and Travis Sonksen was appointed.
Other agenda items at Monday's lengthy meeting included discussing bids received for the Faade Project. The architect opinion on cost of the project was $513,000, but the lowest of the two bids came in at $699,000. The project will be funded by grants and a 50 percent match from business owners.
After discussing the matter, the council voted to check back with faade property owners to get input from them as to how to proceed. There will be a meeting next week of those business owners. One has already opted out of the project.