Earlier in January we asked First Selectman Beth Heller about issues the town is facing in 2022, and she responded with a whole list of initiatives, many of which seem to point to one overarching goal – to allow the town to move forward in an environment of steep price increases and social division, without significantly increasing taxes. A lot of the work on her list involves planning for ways to set the town on a sustainable path, including, but not limited to, developing a strategic plan, strengthening the business district, and finding a solution for the much-discussed former Country Club of Woodbridge (CCW).
At the top of the list is the work of the “2030 Task Force,” which is tasked with finding ways to grow the Grand List. The Grand List is the listing of all taxable property in town. The idea is by increasing the tax base – in particular the commercial tax base — the owners of private property will be less burdened.
The members of the task force are co-chairmen Susan Jacobs and Chris Dickerson; Jeremy Rosner, Garett Luciani and former Selectwoman Teri Schatz. Their focus has been on the business district. The committee, which is working with Finance Director Anthony Genovese and Administrative Assistant Betsy Yagla, is about to hire a planner, Laura Pirie with Pirie Associates of New Haven, to identify ways to make the area more attractive.
Pirie suggested for the commission to visit similar towns and maybe identify some of the initiatives that have been working for those towns, said Genovese. Pirie is going to work exclusively on the town’s business district, and this position is not to be confused with a future Town Planner, a position that so far is part of the proposed 2022-23 budget – provided it doesn’t get cut.
Strategic Plan: The Board of Selectmen is working to come up with a strategic plan to guide the town in the budgeting process going forward. Administrative Assistant Betsy Yagla presented them with two sample plans, one of Enfield (population of 44,000) and one of Tolland (population of 15,000). Although Enfield is a bigger town, she said she included its strategic plan because she liked the way it was structured in five buckets – Economic Development – Education – infrastructure – safety – and quality of life.
She came up with a list of sample goals that the Selectmen might want to consider. Those included:
- The future use of the country club property;
- Financial stability (growing Grand List);
- Focus on diversity and ensured equity in town operations;
- Promote affordable and senior housing;
- Sustainability through energy savings, trash reduction, and alternative energies.
Housing opportunity: The Housing Opportunity Study Committee is working to suggest an affordable housing plan, as required by the state. The group most recently launched a Woodbridge specific survey, which is available on the town’s website, to get a better understanding of what type of housing options residents would welcome, and where. Its plan will tie in with that of the South Central Regional Council of Governments (SCROG), which is working on a regional approach. The plan is due in July.
Potential Referendum I: Heller expressed hope the town will be able to resurrect certain building projects that last year’s Board of Selectmen was working on. Those projects include roof replacements at Beecher Road School; turning the Old Firehouse into a community center; and Senior Center upgrades.
The plan to conduct a public hearing in preparation for the referendum came to a halt after the town experienced technical difficulties trying to administer a virtual Town Meeting, and the subsequent in-person meeting devolved into an unproductive rumpus.
Potential Referendum II: As the town is engaging in talks with the developers of the suggested Arbor Haven proposal for the CCW, the First Selectman expressed hope that they will be able to pull together a proposal that can pass at referendum. “I expect the board will have continuing discussions about the CCW as we move through the first quarter of 2022,” she wrote. “A $9,000,000 infusion of capital to the Town will fully pay off the outstanding CCW loan balance and leave a significant amount for other important programs, including the most important program the Town offers, which is the education of our children. This will ultimately be up to the voters to make a choice.”
Town Center: Most recently Heller announced that the town successfully applied for a Department of Transportation grant, which will add sidewalks to connect the high school with the town center, and add lighting as well. Students often walk from the high school to the Town Library and currently walk in the street, while buses and cars are leaving.
There have been events when the town has used the High School parking lot for overflow parking, and having a walkway would increase the safety of pedestrians. The value of the grant is for $600,000. The town also applied for signage and solar-powered speed awareness signs.
Center Plans: The town is continuing work on figuring out how to allocate federal dollars received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). So far, they are suggesting to use those funds to improve outdoor programming space, in particular in the Grove next to the library. For example, the town could purchase a tent which can be used for a variety of events and by many departments. They are also suggesting HVAC improvements at the Center Building; playground and park maintenance due to increased use during the pandemic; and marketing of events in the business district.
Diversity & Inclusion: First Selectman Heller appointed an ad-hoc Diversity and Inclusion Committee last year, which is working to “identify and assess issues related to diversity and inclusion, or the lack thereof,” and recommend steps to improve on that score. This committee also is working on a survey, to better understand people’s living experience in Woodbridge and find out where the group needs to focus its work.
It is also sponsoring a book discussion on the 1619 Project February 24 at the Town Library.
Meanwhile the Community Council is planning to continue welcome coffees to help introduce new residents to the Town and answer their questions.
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent