After a series of setbacks with Hillsdale College’s newly acquired Monticello replica, the college will move forward with its plan to establish the property as the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom.
Last year, Prestly Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s restaurant chain, and his wife, Helen Blake, donated a large part of their estate in Somers, Connecticut, to Hillsdale College. A replica of Monticello, the famous home of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, sits at the heart of the property.
Hillsdale General Counsel Robert Norton visited the Blakes’ estate last semester. Norton emphasized the beauty of the estate and said Hillsdale’s new facility will try to preserve it.
When the college announced the donation last February, Mike Harner, chief of staff for the college president’s office, told The Collegian the property would be used as an educational center. He said it would hold lectures, events, and training for local students and educators.
In a January 2019 meeting with the Somers Economic Development Commission, the Blakes proposed a Hillsdale satellite campus called “The Prestley and Helen Blake Center for Business, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship.” They invited Hillsdale officials to visit the property, kicking off the process of donating it to the college.
Since the property sits on Hall Hill Road, in a residential area, operating a facility in this way requires zoning changes. The Somers zoning commission revealed updated regulations at an April 2019 meeting without any changes to Hall Hill Road. Effectively, the plan was shut down.
A few months later, in September, Hillsdale applied for a special use permit as a religious institution instead of the business and education center. “Hillsdale College is its own religious institution,” Norton said. “I don’t think there’s any controversy about whether that’s the case.”
At public hearings, some local residents opposed Hillsdale’s proposed facility. In April 2019, the Journal Inquirer, a Connecticut newspaper reporting from Somers, obtained six letters from locals opposing the planned changes to the estate, which they thought would devalue their residential properties.
Jerry and Michele Tarbox live across the street from the Monticello replica and expressed concern about the new developments, even placing a sign reading “Not Hillsdale College here” in their front yard, according to the Journal Inquirer. “A 100-space parking lot and the related lighting along with increased traffic is clearly concerning,” they wrote in a letter to the city.
Other Somers residents who live near the replica agreed with the Tarboxes. Norton said the college has developed plans with these concerns in mind.
“We’ve actually proposed to use lighting that will have minimal light pollution effect,” Norton said. “These light poles will be lower to the ground.” In addition, the new version of the parking lot will only have 35 spots.
Norton added that the college plans to use dark-sky-rated lights in the parking lot. The parking lot itself will be built behind the replica and cannot be seen from the road, he said.
The college also conducted a traffic study of the area to estimate potential impacts.
“It showed there won’t be any major consequences,” Norton said.
Afterward, the city did its own traffic study, which Hillsdale paid for, with similar results, according to Norton.
As a tax-exempt institution, the college expects to receive a tax exemption on the property. After residents expressed concern about this, Harner estimated the tax loss for the city at $100,000 annually at a meeting with concerned Somers residents last year. Harner also said the college would try to replace the lost revenue via direct payment to the town or reimbursement to the community.
For more than a year, and before the Blakes donated the property, Somers has been revisiting its zoning laws and designations. A few months ago, Somers introduced an ordinance that tried to update its zoning laws to allow for “places of worship” rather than “religious institutions.”
Hillsdale, with the help of lawyer and zoning expert Dwight Merriam, explained to the commission that this ordinance would violate both the U.S. and Connecticut Constitutions.
Another lawyer representing the college, Hillsdale College alumnus Ryan Walsh, also argued against the ordinance. In a letter to the commission, Walsh said the college would fight both a rejection of the “religious institution” special use permit as well as the new ordinance, if it was passed. The commission has since withdrawn the proposed ordinance.
The zoning commission in Somers will hold another public meeting on Monday, March 9, to discuss Hillsdale’s special use permit. The commission does not have to vote at the meeting, but Norton said he expects it to.
“We think we’ve given them every reason to vote in favor of it. We’ve tried to be respectful and counter any of the objections within reason,” Norton said. “We’re cautiously optimistic the commission will go our way.”