Terry Gilbertson, long-time Woodbridge building official, Inland Wetlands enforcement officer, and zoning enforcement officer, died October 28, at the age of 68 from complications of pneumonia. He had been out on medical leave for some time, but for the community he had served for more than 20 years and had been consulted in most land-use issues, the news of his passing came as a shock.
Gilbertson was remembered as very smart and knowledgeable in his field. “He understood the bigger picture,” said Sharon DeKadt, whose first stint in town government was on the Inland-Wetlands agency. She is now a commissioner on the Conservation Commission.
Terry would do his homework before every board meeting, she said. He would research issues in other towns and guide the commissioners through the rules and regulations. “He was a repository of knowledge,” she said.
Gilbertson was remembered as one who not only was a fount of knowledge regarding the rules and regulations, but always respected the human experience that was impacted by these rules.
First Selectman Beth Heller made that point when she recalled consulting with Gilbertson about residents’ complaints. Occasionally, residents call her office to report what they consider to be a cluttered, overly busy, less than tidy neighbor’s yard. “I had occasion to reach out to Terry to discuss these various calls,” she said, “and he came to my office to explain his thoughts when I asked him how he, as the Building Official and Zoning Enforcement Officer, might handle these little problems.
“After he listened intently to my reports, he thought for a moment, and then in a way that those of us will remember of Terry, he spoke in a concise, factual manner, regarding what some of us might even consider to be a hoarding problem. He said, ‘some people see value in things that some others do not.’”
His simple statement was not only helpful for thinking about these little problems that arise from time to time, Heller said, but “also offered a broader insight into life concisely put…that people are different – different life experiences, different values, and different priorities. Their priorities are not necessarily the same as ours, and in many ways, we should be grateful for this variety of the human experience. I will always remember that grain of wisdom,” Heller said.
His legal and interpersonal skills led to others seeking his advice as well. Three years ago, State Sen. Martin Looney asked him to serve on the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Port Authority; he also served on the Principal Technical Committee of the National Fire Protection Administration, 307 Standard for the Construction and Fire Protection of Marine Terminals. According to his obituary, Gilbertson was a member of International Code Council, the New England Building Code Association, the Connecticut Building Officials Association (CBOA), and a Lifetime Member of NFPA.
He enjoyed the respect not only of his co-workers at the Woodbridge Town Hall, but the homeowners and developers he dealt with, either as enforcer or enabler.
In a celebration of Gilbertson’s life at the JCC about two weeks after his passing, one person who was in construction said how he always appreciated Gilbertson explaining things without talking down to anyone. He remembered their first meeting, when he was on a roof working, and a mustachioed man in a stylish hat came over, pointing and calling, “Stop that! Stop it right now! You don’t have a permit!” He replied, “I know, I’m waiting for the building official!” And everything was fine after that.
Next to the hat he used to wear, the mustache certainly was an identifying feature of the building official. Pua Ford, who works at Town Hall and attended the celebration of his life at the JCC, recalled how “Terry’s mustache was twitching furiously” when a developer was talking about the many ways to skin a cat. She said her husband, watching the give-and-take on video, remarked, ‘What an eloquent mustache!’”
Environmental protection was important to him, but he was one of the few who actually practice what they preach. Members of the Inland Wetlands agency for instance occasionally have potluck dinners before their meetings and Gilbertson made sure they used washable plates rather than paper or plastic. “But I had to wash them,” said Land Use Analyst Kris Sullivan, his sidekick at the office.
The town named Andrew Rizzo as the acting building official, while Kris Sullivan took on the role as acting zoning enforcement officer and acting wetlands enforcement officer.
Pictured: The late Terry Gilbertson’s hats made him easily visible around town. One could track the change of seasons by Terry’s transition from his distinctive Stetson to his Panama Hat and back again.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent