Budget challenges and land use issues were high on First Selectman Ellen Scalettar’s to-do list as she was reflecting on what’s facing the town in 2016. In addition, she is planning to continue initiatives she started, such as promoting local businesses and bringing several energy projects to fruition.
Her number one priority is always the budget, she said, and that will pose some special challenges this year, given looming increases in the education budgets. Both the local elementary school and the regional high school have indicated substantial increases for the upcoming 2016-17 budget. At Amity, an anticipated increase of student enrollment from Woodbridge, coupled with a decrease from the other towns, may lead to as much as a $1 million increase in the town’s contribution. At Beecher Road School, the administration is facing an increase in special education costs. “Looking at the fiscal health of the town frames everything I do,” Scalettar said, adding that the award-winning school systems are first among the town’s priorities, even as they try to control the mill rate and respect residents’ pocketbooks.
The joint boards of selectmen and finance have already received capital requests from the different departments in December; coming up during the second half of January and into the first week of February they will hear the operating budget requests. Most meetings are broadcast live on Woodbridge Government Access Television and are accessible on Channel 79.
The question whether or not to accept a limited development on the Country Club of Woodbridge (CCW) property will ultimately be decided by referendum, hopefully before the end of 2016, Scalettar said. There will be a public forum before the question is put before the voters, she said. In the meantime, residents can voice their concerns or opinions during regular board meetings. The Board of Selectmen has moved its public comment time to the start of its meetings, typically at 6 p.m.
A similar referendum in the fall of 2011 — when the late First Selectman Ed Sheehy proposed a limited development on 17 rocky acres along Woodfield Road — was soundly defeated by the voters. However, “circumstances are quite different now from what they were in 2011,” Scalettar wrote in an email when asked why the issue is being brought back. She referred to efforts to weigh different options, inform townspeople of the financial implications, and build consensus on the issue. nAlso, “Being committed to open space is totally compatible with some development at the CCW, “she wrote. One proposed scenario, for example, would provide 70 units of senior housing on approximately 30 acres, leaving the town owning over 100 acres. “We will explore the potential uses of the undeveloped portion of the land, such as new recreational facilities that could include walking and bike trails, basketball courts and others,” she wrote.
Asked whether or not the town would open the outdoor pool at the Country Club during this period of decision-making, Scalettar said once the selectmen have all the information regarding the different options for the property, she hopes that the board can make a decision on whether or not to open the pool. At the time of the interview, she was not sure if that could be accomplished by the January board meeting.
Managing Open Space
Several groups are tasked with tackling open space management issues from different angles. The Conservation Commission will be focusing on how the town manages existing open space parcels and trails.
An ad hoc committee on Best Outdoor Maintenance and Management Practices for Town Owned Land, chaired by Louisa Cunningham, is charged with making recommendations on best management practices to protect and encourage bird, butterfly and bee habitat; and to maximize organic, non-pesticide usage, in particular regarding the Fitzgerald property.
The Commission for the Use of Publicly Owned Properties (CUPOP) is looking into drawing up more formalized guidelines for the use of the Fitzgerald property and the community gardens. The commission is expected to report back to the Board of Selectmen by March 1.
In the newly adopted Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), the Town Plan and Zoning Commission is tasked with bringing its regulations into alignment with the new document. To facilitate that process, the town last year budgeted $10,000 to hire a part-time town planner. The commission has talked to Hamden Town Planner Leslie Creane to take on that project.
Given the limited funds, the commission asked Creane to focus on one area, namely the town’s commercial district. “In the POCD, we talked about bringing in mixed use, to allow retail, offices and condos, to create this neighborhood (in the commercial district),” said Zoning Chairman Jeff Kaufman. Creane’s office will make design proposals for the area, which is also referred to as the Woodbridge Village or “downtown.” These suggestions will then be shared and discussed with the people who live and work there; finally, in a last step, Creane will help the commission formulate regulations to enable the desired development.
Creane, a graduate of Cornell and Yale universities, a few years ago helped the town of Hamden revise its zoning regulations, which in 2009 earned her a first place award from the Congress for the New Urbanism’s New England chapter.
Kaufman envisions the work to take place in the first half of 2016, but a schedule had not been worked out in early January. Giving the commercial area a more unified character may have some positive economic impact, Kaufman said, both for the businesses and ultimately for the town.
Keeping a healthy business climate and attracting new businesses is one way to control the mill rate. Scalettar has been visiting different local businesses so as to highlight what they do. In addition, the Economic Development Commission has increased its outreach program. It has introduced a “business after-hours” networking event, which drew a large crowd and proved very popular, Scalettar said. They also had several breakfast meetings and introduced workshops such as a press release writing seminar. The topic for an upcoming workshop will be on cyber security.
Woodbridge also is working with the New Haven Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Chamber to increase its visibility as a business location and to tie into their networking potential. One initiative designed to support local businesses is to install way-finding signs indicating the location of businesses and key landmarks, said Assistant Administrative Officer Betsy Yagla. Money left over from a state grant will pay for the signs.
The administration is also working on a brochure for business owners who are interested in locating here. The intention is to make all necessary contacts readily available and to lay out the steps for permitting.
Scalettar is planning to continue with two of the programs she initiated, the “Wisdom of Woodbridge” lecture series and the “Person of the Month” recognition. Next up on the schedule of lectures are Nancy Yao Maasbach, director of the Museum of the Chinese in America, whose talk is titled “Chinatowns, China’s Towns, and Chinese Towns: An Evolving Sense of Community,” on Tuesday, January 19 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 360 Amity Road.
In March the speaker is Yaron Baitch, co-founder and CEO of AuthAir. He will present a program on “Hacked! Keeping your identity safe in the Information Age,” Tuesday, March 22 at 7 p.m., also at the JCC.
Scalettar plans to build on the newly re-instated Woodbridge Day event, anchored by the annual Woodbridge Road Race in early October. The plan is to add activities across town, spanning from the Woodbridge Village in the east to Massaro Farm in the west.
The Library is planning to continue the one-book-one-town read, and is currently scouting out potential titles with accompanying activities. It is also continuing its cooperation with Long Wharf Theater, whereby the theater invites Woodbridge residents to one special discounted performance, and brings an introductory program to the suburbs.
Scalettar also intends to strengthen the town’s Internet presence. With now more than 900 subscribers to its listserve, a good number of people receive reminders for events and updates on happenings from Town Hall.
Coming up in 2016 residents will also see a redesign of the town’s website, Scalettar said. The new website is to make the available information more user friendly and accessible.
Scalettar also plans to continue her administration’s promotion of clean energy. The fuel cell project, for which the town had applied several years back, seems to be coming to fruition and nearing construction. United Illuminating will head the construction of a fuel cell at the high school, and provide an in-ground connection to the municipal buildings. The energy that UI derives from this fuel cell will provide the town some savings in electricity costs and provide emergency power during electric outages.
The town also is pursuing the installation of solar panels on the former landfill on Acorn Hill. However, the state needs to give the green light for new projects to move forward. “We are working with other towns and our legislators so our project can move forward,” Scalettar said.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent