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Prestley and Helen Blake’s property in Con­necticut that includes a replica of Mon­ti­cello. Wayne Dumas | Courtesy

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.”