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White Barn Foundation given four months to raise ‘good faith’ money to buy Norwalk/Westport theater

The White Barn Theater, in September.
The White Barn Theater, in September.

NORWALK, Conn. – Waldo Mayo and his associates have been given four months to show they can raise money to save the White Barn Theater and home of the late Lucille Lortel, Attorney Stephen Nevas said Monday.

This stems from “tense and intense” negotiations inspired by a court action filed by The Lucille Lortel and Waldo Mayo White Barn Foundation, said Nevas, representing the foundation. The foundation went to court because Jim Fieber of Special Properties II “would not provide assurances we were led to believe he would,” Nevas said.

Fieber did not respond to an email from NancyOnNorwalk.

The Mayo/Lortel Foundation needs to raise good faith money within the next four months – not the full purchase price, Nevas said. Fieber’s target price is about $5.2 million, but “both parties have agreed to negotiate in good faith,” Nevas said.

The agreement, he said, allowed the request for the court order to be dropped.

On Friday, the foundation filed a legal action in Stamford Superior Court seeking an injunction to prevent Norwalk from issuing a demolition permit to Special Properties II until the State Historic Preservation Office makes a determination as to the eligibility of the theater, at 78 Cranbury Road and 440 Newtown Ave., to be on the National Register of Historic Places.

The deadline on a demolition delay for the property was March 22.

The Historical Commission last week requested that the city look into buying the property and called into question the legality of the paperwork filed on the application, suggesting that Norwalk’s legal department and the tax assessor’s office investigate whether or not the property was exempt from property taxes.

The property has remained in the ownership of the Connecticut Friends School, although Fieber’s company has sought and won Zoning approval to build a 15-home conservation development there.

“The deed in lieu of foreclosure hasn’t been filed yet,” Norwalk Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland said at last week’s Historical Commission meeting. “Some people speculated, that spoke, that this was being done so developer wouldn’t have to pay property taxes on it. I don’t know whether that is true or not, I am not making any judgement, we are just asking corporation counsel’s office to take a look at it.”

“The Connecticut Friends School, a Connecticut non-stock corporation, conveyed title to the above-named property to the defendant Special Properties II LLC by deed in lieu of foreclosure but said deed has not been recorded on the land records of the City of Norwalk,” the legal complaint filed by the foundation states.

“I know that because I had a document prepared by one of Mr. Fieber’s lawyers to that effect, that states that,” Nevas said Monday.

“It’s not like we are preceding without authorization, we have full authorization from the owner,” Nolin said. “When the owner and Mr. Fieber complete the negotiation over the deed in lieu he will take full title over his entities,” Attorney Peter Nolin said last week.

The title on the property was transferred with a warranty deed on Thursday, from the Connecticut Friends School to a newly formed entity, 78 Cranbury Road II LLC, Town Clerk Rick McQuaid said. The conveyance price was listed as $3,470,000, with $39,375 paid to the state in taxes and $17,350 to the city.

A court hearing was held Monday morning on the complaint filed by the foundation.

“Over the weekend and continuing today we had an intensifying series of discussions in an attempt to settle the matter. This morning, at court, after some further discussions, it was resolved,” Nevas said Monday afternoon. “We agreed that the Lucille Lortel and Waldo Mayo White Barn Foundation will be allowed at least 4 months to raise sufficient funds to buy the property. In the meantime, the owners have agreed not to attempt to demolish or otherwise do anything to damage the White Barn Theater or the Lucille Lortel residence on the property. We all agreed to work in good faith toward a contract of sale for the property. There just hasn’t been enough time of late given the threat of demolition to assemble the funding that has been needed to purchase the property. But now we have that opportunity and that time and we look forward to doing it.”

“Relations have improved since coming to the agreement,” Nevas said.

The foundation’s Feb. 15 donor appeal letter states that it is looking for $2 million to purchase an option agreement to buy the 15-acre property over a three- to four-year period, or $5.2 million to buy it outright.

The Historical Commission called for buying the property in a way that would be revenue neutral over five years. This would include selling part of it, pursuing grants and giving the Waldo Mayo/Lucille Lortel Foundation three years to come up with the money needed to either buy it or take out a long-term lease with the city. After three years, the city would pursue other options.

The foundation has an ambitious plan to raise the money and “would welcome the city’s participation (financially), and the state as well,” Nevas said Monday.

The goal is “to restore the theater and reopen it to continue its tradition of experimental theater featuring prominent actors, in a traditional and in a contemporary manner, including music, and digital as well, that would be viewed online,” Nevas said.

“We are pleased” with the agreement, he said. “We needed time, and now we have time.”

The home of the late Lucille Lortel.
The home of the late Lucille Lortel.

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