With many major projects in the air, First Selectman Beth Heller and the crew at Town Hall are facing a busy year. “We are looking at challenges AND opportunities,” she said, as she was looking at what’s ahead in 2021.
Among the opportunities she mentioned solar panels that will be installed on the firehouse and the Sheehy Public Works Building. The project is being managed and financed through the Connecticut Green Bank, which will own and maintain the system. The town will buy the energy from them, at considerable cost savings over the next 20 years.
Flooding study: Another major opportunity for the town is the prospect of moving ahead with flood mitigation efforts along the West River corridor and Litchfield Turnpike. The First Selectman had just received word from US Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s office that federal funds were allocated in the Water Resources Development Act for a feasibility study for flood risk management projects in that area. The study will be done by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Many steps have been undertaken in the last 10 years to prevent flooding in the area, including removing a part of the dam in Westville, and replacing the Merritt Ave. bridge. Each of these steps has helped improve the situation, but flooding still occurs occasionally. Two years ago, the first selectman invited Congresswoman DeLauro and representatives from the Army Corps to tour the area and hear from homeowners and from businesses in the area, in the wake of a major flooding event in September 2018.
The flooding was not only caused by the West River flooding its banks, but from rain runoff coming down the hill from Amity Road, and flooding residences and parking lots before it every reached the river. Mitigation efforts will have to take a multi-pronged approach, said Betsy Yagla, administrative assistant in the First Selectman’s office. The study by the Army Corps of Engineers will look at the feasibility of dredging the river and dredging the pond above; or of widening the river.
It is due to the persistence of the First Selectman that the project is getting federal support, Yagla added
Economic Development: Growing the Grand List is ultimately every municipal leader’s goal, and Heller is no different. But it is tough during a pandemic. Each business had its own set of challenges, and all had to come up with new ways to survive. The town has continued to work with the Economic Development Commission to reach out to existing businesses and see what their needs are. Betsy Yagla has been the point person in this effort, and she recently posted two surveys on the town website, one for business owners to get their input how the town can help; and another survey for the general public to weigh in regarding what kind of businesses they would like to see in town. The latter has been posted for a couple of weeks already, and Yagla said she had received some 150 responses. The survey is still open, and she will report on the responses later this spring.
Heller was pleased about new interest for businesses along Bradley Road; a liquor store is looking to move into 245 Bradley, the space formerly occupied by Peter Dermer clothier.
The town is also supportive of growing plans for New England Brewing, which is looking to move into a large building on the corner of Bradley and Litchfield Turnpike.
Both projects are on the agenda of the Town Plan and Zoning Commission.
Town planner: The town has decided to hire a part-time town planner who will help develop ideas for the business zone. Heller is also hoping to get some guidance regarding possible uses for the Country Club of Woodbridge. “I still have the vision of having a park there,” she said. Funds left over from an auction of Country Club property could be used to pay for the planner without using taxes for it.
Cell tower: Verizon Wireless, in an effort to improve cell phone reliability along Newton Road, has developed plans to locate a cell tower on a piece of land off Soundview Ave., where it would be located in the middle of a residential area. When neighbors became aware of the plans, they turned to the town for help. “It does not belong in a residential area,” Heller agreed. The Board of Selectmen, which has no authority over the siting of cell towers, voted not to support the project. It seems that so far no application with the Siting Council has been filed yet. Instead, the town has retained an attorney and an engineer to review Verizon’s choices when they become known. Heller said the town has suggested a number of alternative locations to the cell carrier.
Zoning challenge: The town is facing a challenge to its zoning regulations and its Plan of Conservation and Development from a group of lawyers who want to reduce housing segregation in the state. The Open Communities Alliance (OCA) wants the town to allow multi-family housing with a portion of affordable housing throughout the town, wherever suitable properties are available, rather than restrict it to a small section of town.
Based on research performed by Yale law students, they laid out how the history of zoning had served to keep poor people – and by extension people of color – out. “Woodbridge’s housing laws clearly violate the state’s constitution, various state statutes and the federal Fair Housing Act,” said Erin Boggs, OCA executive director during the Town Plan and Zoning hearing on November 30.
The hearing was continued on January 4 and has been continued a second time to February 1.
The Alliance has purchased a property at 2 Orchard Road, where it is applying to demolish the existing single-family home and replace it with a four-unit home, with one unit deemed affordable.
Building projects: Heller is also looking to bring to the voters a bonding package for some $2.5 million, which would allow the town to finish several long-standing projects. If approved, it would pay to turn the empty old firehouse building into a community center, it would pay for the construction of a shed behind the firehouse; it would add some updates to the senior center; and roof repairs on the kindergarten wing at Beecher Road School.
The old firehouse, a handsome brick building on Center Road stemming from the 1930s, had been damaged in a 2006 fire and, although repaired and with updated mechanicals, has been left unfinished. The fire department uses part of the building to store equipment and an antique fire truck in the empty building. In order to finish the old firehouse for town use, the fire department will need to build a shed behind the new firehouse, cost of which would be part of the bond package.
Architect David Stein presented preliminary ideas to the Board of Selectmen, to turn the bays into meeting rooms and a fitness center. “It will be a gateway to the town center,” Heller said. The idea to move the Amity Transition Program into the upstairs space, with the high school in walking distance, has been kicked around for some time. It is unclear whether Amity and the Town will come to an agreement.
Stein estimated the renovations of the old firehouse to cost just under $1 million; the storage shed would add another $557,000. At the Board of Selectmen meeting, Finance Director Anthony Genovese recommended bonding for the project, for two reasons: the town had paid off some debt, so adding these projects would not increase taxes; he also said that with interest rates being at a historic low, this would be a good time to get projects done.
Senior Center: At the Woodbridge Center, the Human Services Department is looking to update the reception area, construct a sports equipment storage closet and add built-ins in the lounge.
Police Station: Heller is planning to appoint a Building Committee to determine the needs and hopefully find solutions for a 21st century police department. The current station is located in the town’s former elementary school, and is deemed inadequate for many functions of policing in this day and age.
Unfortunately, the renewed effort comes too late for Deputy Police Chief Ray Stuart, who was instrumental in working on a needs assessment and related plans some 15 years ago. He is planning to retire at the end of this month.
Local elections: Come May 3, Woodbridge residents will have the opportunity to confirm the first selectman in her efforts to lead the town through turbulent times. Beth Heller said she plans to seek the Democratic nomination, which was scheduled for Jan. 14.
By press time, no opponent had been named.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent