Guilford offering tax rebate to coax company to stay

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/30/2007

GUILFORD — The town is offering its first tax rebate for a business to manufacturing firm Arkwright in an effort to encourage the company not to relocate, First Selectman Carl Balestracci said.

By state statute, municipalities can approve tax rebates for new equipment and facilities, Balestracci said. No Guilford businesses have applied for the program in the past, he said.

If Arkwright decides to take advantage of the program, it would make an application to the Board of Selectmen for its approval. The five-year plan could offer a 50 percent rebate on the taxes for new equipment in the first year and a 40 percent rebate in the second year with decreases of 10 percent per year for the remaining three years, Balestracci said.

Arkwright employs about 100 people, 40 percent of whom live in Guilford, Balestracci said. It is one of the town’s largest manufacturers.

The company, which is headquartered in Rhode Island, makes paper and films for digital imaging, according to the company’s Web site. Jack Heath, the company’s president, said that it has had a location in Guilford for more than 30 years.

Heath said he cannot talk about specifics of the company’s business discussions. Arkwright is owned by a Dutch firm, Oce International.

“We’ve had a great relationship with the town — they’ve been very responsive to us all through the years,” Heath said. “We’re in Guilford, we plan to be in Guilford and (it’s) business as usual.”

Balestracci said that about two years ago, the chairman of the town’s Economic Development Commission told him that Arkwright was considering leaving Guilford as one option of a reorganization plan. He began meeting with Arkwright officials and a representative of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

“When you’re talking about a taxpayer that’s as big as Arkwright, to do something like this to keep them here is more than worthwhile from so many different angles — the taxes alone, the employees, plus it’s been a great firm for Guilford for a lot of years,” he said.

Dave Treadwell, a spokesman for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said his agency has not made any agreements with Arkwright, but has been in discussions with the company along with Guilford. The state can offer businesses low-interest loans for items like machinery, equipment or construction, Treadwell said.

“Generally speaking, we want to keep every company in Connecticut, especially with a company that has locations outside of the state,” he said. “We want to keep them here and have them consolidate here.”

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Suburban farms seek new ways to stay fertile

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/28/2007

GUILFORD — With muddy boots and dirt caked on his fingers, Tom Pinchbeck knows his way around a greenhouse.

Pinchbeck Roses on the Boston Post Road has been in his family for four generations, after his great-grandfather founded the business in 1929.

As the chairman of the Guilford Agricultural Commission, Pinchbeck also knows many of the ins and outs of the town’s farming regulations. The commission has been meeting for a little more than a year on ways to encourage and protect agriculture in the town.

After a group of farmers and other residents formed a steering committee, the Board of Selectmen established the state’s first municipal agricultural commission in August 2006. Commissioners and farm owners said the group has made progress so far, but still has its work cut out for it in a town where residential development may threaten agricultural practices.

“It’s harder for younger farmers who don’t have a farm that they might be able to inherit or something — it’s difficult for them to get into farming because of the limited land,” Pinchbeck said. “Guilford started out as an agricultural town and it still is, but we’re at the point now where we need to sort of acknowledge that formally and to help continue and move agriculture along.”

Recently, the commission announced one of its first major initiatives, a collaboration with the American Farmland Trust to review inconsistencies in local farming rules and regulations. The group got a $15,500 Agriculture Viability Grant from the state Department of Agriculture to conduct the survey.

Pinchbeck said that offices and commissions in Guilford often have varying rules on farming and agriculture, which can create problems for farmers. For example, he said, the planning and zoning department and tax assessor’s offices have different definitions of the word “agriculture.”

“We felt like (doing the review) was an important step one for us to help establish where we stand right now in the town,” he said. “There’s a lot of places where we think we could be of help and a lot of commissions are looking for advice from us.”

Environmental Town Planner Leslie Kane said the farming operations in Guilford run from small farm stands to large-scale commercial operations. Everyone on the commission is involved in farming, Kane said, and the group has “made really good progress” so far in reaching out to other farmers in town.

“The fact that we do have so many farms is really important to maintaining Guilford’s character,” she said. “(We wanted to) make sure that there was a group that when there were farm issues that came up, whether they were zoning questions, conflicts with zoning regulations, or whether it was neighbor issues, that farmers had somewhere to go for people to support them.”

Pinchbeck said that the commission has tried to be as inclusive as possible with different agricultural practices.

“Intentionally, we’ve kept our definition from our perspective very open for anybody who’s interested,” he said. “There’s a lot of part-timers; a lot of people might have a full-time job somewhere and then they farm or maybe their wife works and they farm. It seems like more and more farmers need to have some sort of income from the outside or health benefits.”

Barbara Hammarlund and her husband, John, are part-time farmers who hope to transition to full time eventually. Both grew up working on farms and were part of the steering committee to form the agricultural commission, and John Hammarlund is now an alternate on the commission.

They grow hay and raise a small herd of beef cattle on about 100 acres that they rent and own, Barbara Hammarlund said. The hot weather this year has been a challenge for second-cut hay farmers, and Hammarlund — who attends most of the commission’s meetings — said she hopes the group can look into grants or other forms of funding available to smaller operations.

“To try and farm full time, it doesn’t really work,” she said. “It takes a while to build up the clientele on your farm and everything else, and you just can’t make enough these days to pay all the bills and everything.”

In 2006, about 2,700 acres of land in Guilford fell under a tax category for farms, according to the tax assessor’s office. That number, which represents about 9 percent of the total land in Guilford, was up slightly from about 2,300 acres in 2001. The U.S. Census of Agriculture showed that the number of farms in New Haven County as a whole declined by 14 percent between 1997 and 2002, the most recent year for which data was available.

One of the Guilford Agricultural Commission’s goals is to create a comprehensive inventory of the town’s farms.

In addition to taking an overall look at Guilford’s farm regulations, the agricultural commission is tackling some of the more seemingly minor issues — like who the police department should call when it gets complaints about loose livestock. Other sources of conflict with nonfarming residents can include tractors driving on main roads and cars parking haphazardly at farm stands.

Guilford’s role as the first town in the state to establish an agricultural commission has attracted attention from different groups. Earlier this month, a biannual bicycle ride called the Tour des Farms visited 14 farms in Guilford.

John Guszkowski, chairman of the Eastern Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development Council, which started the tour about five years ago, said the goal is to promote local farms and their products. More than 120 riders started at the Guilford Fairgrounds and took either a 10-, 19-, 28-, or 62-mile loop to different farms, where they were able to buy products that a truck brought back to the fairgrounds for them.

“Guilford having established this agricultural commission sort of gave a good opportunity to highlight them,” Guszkowski said.

The commission has also been prototype for other towns hoping to set up their own agricultural bodies. North Branford Town Manager Karl Kilduff said that the Town Council recently approved the creation of an agricultural commission, which has not started meeting yet.

“I think Guilford’s action provided a model and a topic of conversation for the council to consider,” Kilduff said.

Pinchbeck said that one of the original goals was to encourage the development of agricultural commissions. The Guilford body was based on one in Carver, Mass.

“I hope some more have started up,” Pinchbeck said. “We were hoping that it would sort of get a little snowball effect and get some other towns interested in this.”

Ghost tour a spirited evening in Guilford

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/27/2007

GUILFORD – A heavy mist drizzled down from the night sky as two “ghosts” stood outside a house on Whitfield Street telling their story to a group of visitors.

“I’m a great practical joker,” one said. “I like to tie things into figure-eight knots, figure eight meaning eternity or the symbol for infinity.”

The two characters, dressed in Victorian-era costume, were presented by Guilford High School students Catherine Santini, 15, and Sammie Brechlin, 17, as part of a downtown ghost story tour. The girls embodied two spirits thought to have inhabited a yellow 1844 house, now conveniently for sale – price reduced.

On Friday night, the Guilford Fund for Education held its first Ghost Walk at locations around the Green. The tour of several historic houses featured “true” ghost stories from some of the town’s reportedly haunted environs.

At 1 Park St., which now houses the Guilford Savings Bank, Guilford Fund for Education President Dan Smith played David Naughty, a former resident of the site who Smith said had “been dead for 200 years.”

Smith said that Naughty, who lived up to his last name, was sued by his neighbor and lost his house at the corner of Park and Boston streets. The neighbor razed the house and built the current structure in its place. In retaliation, Naughty stipulated in his will that he be buried on the Green with his head above the ground, looking at his neighbor’s house, but his wishes were not followed.

Lorrie Shaw, the coordinator of the Ghost Walk, said she spent several months talking with residents and reading through old newspaper articles and town archives to research local ghost stories. The tour came out of the preparation for another event the Fund for Education held last weekend that was going to include a trivia contest based on town history.

“It started to evolve because I actually started to talk to somebody who had a spirit in their house and I would hear all these stories,” Shaw said. “I thought, ‘Well, there must be a number of people – Guilford has many historic homes.”

Organizers put up fliers on the Green looking for stories to include in the tour. They decided to only use older houses with ghost stories from the past.

“They’re not grisly or gruesome. … These ghosts, the ones that we have, seem to be there because they really like the home for whatever reason,” Shaw said. “Maybe because we focused on historic homes, most of our spirits seem to be from the 1700s and 1800s.”

During the opening slide show, John Otto discussed a number of houses whose owners have seen ghosts or felt a supernatural presence. He also documented some of the attitudes about death and illness in Colonial and Victorian times.

At the Toll House in Sachem’s Head, Otto said, residents would often see a ball bouncing down the stairs and hear a child crying. They called in psychics to try to rid the house of the spirit.

“Unfortunately, their attempts were unsuccessful, and they eventually found it necessary to leave,” Otto said. “We don’t know if the hauntings have continued.”

In fact, the name Sachem’s Head, which is an area along the shore, has its own ghost story. After a battle between the Pequot tribe and some Colonial settlers allied with Mohicans, a Pequot chief, or sachem, was decapitated and his head was placed on a tree.

“Guilford folklore has it that every 100 years, the tree comes alive, the branches become arms and a Pequot sachem can be seen walking around,” Otto said.

Tickets for the event, which attracted several hundred people, were $20. The money benefited the Guilford Fund for Education, which provides grants for teachers, students and non-profit organizations with innovative educational ideas.

The crowd was split into several groups with individual guides, and some attendees stayed behind to watch a second slide-show presentation. The groups walked on one of two different routes, each of which included six or seven houses. After the tour, a dowser and psychics were on hand to answer people’s questions.

Shaw said she is hoping to make the Ghost Walk an annual event. “We know there are more out there,” she said. “We’re hoping that people come forward for next year.”

N. Branford board working on grade-change policy

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/26/2007

NORTH BRANFORD – The Board of Education has started work on a new policy to govern grade changes, following up on recommendations made by the state attorney general’s office and a law firm the board hired.

The board’s policy subcommittee has put together a draft policy regarding the “assignment and changing of student grades.” The draft was distributed to board members at their last regular meeting.

The new policy comes in the wake of an investigation by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal into allegations of grade tampering at North Branford High School.

Last month, the attorney general’s office released a report concluding that there was insufficient evidence of “pervasive improper grade manipulation or grade tampering,” but there were a few instances in which grades were inappropriately changed.

Blumenthal’s report and an earlier one prepared by the Berchem, Moses & Devlin law firm – which reached similar conclusions – recommended the school district develop firm guidelines for handling grade changes. According to Blumenthal’s office, the North Branford schools and others in the state need to implement “explicit, clear procedures and standards” for dealing with such situations.

Board Chairwoman Cheryl Smith said the policy subcommittee, of which she is a member, started working with some school administrators on the grading policy about a month ago.

“There was no policy that clearly indicated how and what the process should be should there be a need for grade changing, and grade changing happens all over the state and country for various reasons,” Smith said. “So we decided as a board that we would like that to be more specific and make sure that there’s a forum for teachers to be able to voice their opinions and be the primary grader for kids.”

The draft policy states the schools’ grading systems “shall recognize and support teachers as having primary responsibility for the assignment of grades.”

Principals will have authority to review teachers’ grades and can recommend corrective means like additional work if a grade has been improperly assigned.
Before changing a grade, the principal will have to meet with the teacher and go over his or her explanation of the given grade. Any new grades will be reported to the superintendent and documented as part of the student’s record.

Smith said she thinks the final policy will be similar to the draft under discussion. In the next few weeks, board members will be able to offer comments on the draft, and it may come up for a vote at the next regular meeting on Nov. 14.

“I’m very happy with it and I’m glad that we’re starting something, and maybe other districts in the state will follow suit,” she said.

The district is already using a new form teachers and administrators have to sign in order to change a grade, and a computer system that records changes.

Superintendent Robert Wolfe said that there are often circumstances when a teacher decides a student has done enough extra work or demonstrated mastery of a subject to warrant changing his or her grade.

Blumenthal’s and Berchem, Moses & Devlin’s reports also said it is common and acceptable for teachers or administrators to change grades in such instances.

Town will switch 2 schools to sewer line

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/25/2007

NORTH BRANFORD — The school district is spending thousands of dollars a month to pump out the failed septic system at Stanley T. Williams School, and the Town Council will borrow money to connect the school and neighboring Totoket Valley Elementary School to the sewer line.

Officials discovered a problem with the leaching field at Stanley T. Williams School in June, Superintendent Robert Wolfe said. The school district then hired an engineering firm, which recently concluded that the septic system had failed.

“It wasn’t just a clogged pipe or anything like that,” Wolfe said. “This type of septic system generally has a life-span of 25 to 30 years, and this one was approaching 30 years.”

The engineering firm identified three options for solving the problem: repair the leaching field, dig a new one or switch from a septic to a sewer system. A sewer line is located near the school, Wolfe said.

Although tying the school to the sewer line is the most expensive option, Wolfe and town officials said they think it makes the most sense in the long term.

“The septic system at Totoket Valley Elementary School is only slightly younger (than the one at Stanley T. Williams), so the likelihood is that at some point in time we’ll have failure here, so it makes a whole lot of sense to tie into the sewer system and have both schools in the sewer system,” Wolfe said.

Town Manager Karl Kilduff said the cost estimate to hook up the schools to the sewer line is about $390,000. The town will go out to bid for that construction project, and will also solicit bids for an engineering firm to design the system. The Town Council voted at its last regular meeting to issue bonds to cover the cost of the work.

“In the long run, the ability to send our effluent to a treatment plant is better than maintaining on-site septic (and) having to maintain reserve capacity,” Kilduff said.

The school district is pumping out the septic tank at Stanley T. Williams every other day, rather than releasing effluent into the leaching field. Wolfe said that is costing about $5,000 to $7,000 a month, but that money should be included in the bonds the town issues so the district can be reimbursed. Construction will probably not begin until the spring, after the frost season.

Wolfe said the septic problems have not had an impact on students or teachers.

“We have a fairly large tank, so students and adults were never at risk because we continued (to pump), but you can’t continue to do that forever,” he said. “The fact that we’re pumping it (means) it should be relatively seamless or invisible.”

Partnership opens museum doors

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/23/2007

NORTH BRANFORD — The school district will partner with the Yale Center for British Art to designate Jerome Harrison Elementary School and Stanley T. Williams School as the first two “museum schools.”

The designation as part of a pilot program at the museum means that kindergarten through second-grade students at the schools will visit the center at least three times a year and have follow-up instruction with an artist-in-residence and a storyteller, said Linda Friedlaender, curator of education.

Teachers at the schools will also have the opportunity to attend professional development courses, and parents can visit the museum with their children outside of school hours.

“I’ve always wanted to expand both the number of students that were coming and also to develop closer relationships to more of the classroom teachers so that we could increase their comfort level in the museum,” Friedlaender said. “What I wanted was a true collaboration where we were working hand in glove with the teachers (and) with the administration.”

The program is funded by a grant from the Hearst Foundation. North Branford Superintendent Robert Wolfe said the grant will provide about $35,000 a year for at least two years.

Friedlaender said she has been working with teachers at Jerome Harrison and Stanley T. Williams schools for several years during field trips to the museum. The teachers and administration were interested in expanding the relationship, which is why the two schools were chosen as the first “museum schools.” She is not sure for how long the program will continue or whether it will expand to other schools and districts.

“The hope (is) that once we kind of get this to be a very smooth-flowing operation that we can increase and add on a grade (in North Branford schools) perhaps each year,” she said. “Hopefully, it can provide a model so that other towns, other cities can talk to us about it if it’s something that interests them.”

She added that working with younger grades helps get students interested in art and the ways to visually “read” artwork at an early age.

“They develop these kinds of behaviors and these skills so that when they come in as older students — middle school, high school — they’ve already got the background of knowledge, information and understanding, so that you can just do so much more with them as time goes by,” she said.

Wolfe said the elementary school students and teachers have already been involved in a “visual literacy” program that encourages them to apply verbal skills to the interpretation of artwork.

“The students have a background in a program, which is already established and ongoing, and there’s a commitment to this template of visual literacy to be placed over the elementary schools,” he said.

Friedlaender said the museum schools program will focus on similar skills. When students visit the Center for British Art, they will spend time sketching, working on writing prompts and describing the artwork in a way that is intended to build their vocabularies.

“After they have thoroughly described a painting, then they are allowed to draw conclusions and interpret the picture,” she said. “One of the goals of this is to help them learn the difference between describing something and interpreting something, and that is to draw meaning from what they see.”

She added while improving test scores is not the program’s goal, these skills fall under objectives for the Connecticut Mastery Tests.

There will be a kickoff event for the program on Nov. 12, after which the district will initiate the activities associated with the program, Wolfe said.

“I believe it’s very important for students as part of their education to have a very, very enriched curriculum and I believe that museums offer that,” he said. “I think we’re very fortunate in Connecticut to have a wide variety of museum opportunities throughout the state.”

Last hearing set for Guilford project

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
10/18/2007

GUILFORD — The Inland Wetlands Commission has already spent four nights on hours-long public hearings over a plan to build a shopping center at the “rock pile” site.

But at the Oct. 3 hearing — which was supposed to be the final one — commissioners decided to add another meeting for public comment tonight. Officials said they still have questions for the developer, DDR Guilford, and wanted to give residents more time to voice their feelings about the project.

This is the second round of public hearings the Inland Wetlands Commission has held on the proposed 28-acre shopping complex at 1919 Boston Post Road, near the Exit 57 interchange on Interstate 95. In April, the commission rejected the proposal, but the developer modified and resubmitted its plans.

One of the main questions surrounding the current proposal is the inclusion of a controversial sewage treatment system, said Environmental Town Planner Leslie Kane.

In the past, the Zenon system has had failures in compliance at other locations in Connecticut, but the state Department of Environmental Protection has granted DDR Guilford a permit to use the Zenon system to treat sewage at the rock pile site.

“There were questions that were brought up (at previous public hearings) by the commission and the experts for the town and also the interveners, and they largely focused on the effluent from the package sewage treatment plant, otherwise known as a Zenon system, and storm water,” she said.

Kane said the developers have addressed several of the major concerns raised by the original proposal, but the plan for the Zenon system is largely the same. She added that it is common for developers to apply more than once before their plans are approved.

DDR Guilford and the Committee to Save the Guilford Shoreline, which has registered as an official intervener in opposition to the project, have presented experts testifying about the projected impact the shopping center would have on storm water, nearby Spinning Mill Brook and the local wetlands. The town also hired scientists to analyze the evidence.

“The interveners have serious questions and the applicants, of course, really want their project approved,” Kane said. “While they all may have accurate information, these outside experts that the town has hired can kind of look at things on a more even keel. They’re neither in favor or against.”

Kane said residents had a chance to ask some general questions at the Oct. 3 meeting, but have not had time yet to discuss their opposition to or support for the project.

Commission Chairman Doug Summerton, who voted to approve the project in April, said he thinks the applicant has addressed the “majority of the issues” that led the commission to reject the plan at the time.

“I think there are a few more that they still need to address before we can make a decision,” Summerton said. “This is the most complicated, the most scrutinized application ever submitted to the Inland Wetlands Commission and I’m giving both sides the opportunity to state their cases and to reply back to either sides’ comments or questions.”

Kane said tonight’s hearing, which will take place at 7:30 in the chorus room at Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School, is scheduled to be the last. After the commission closes the hearing, it has 35 days to make a decision, and Kane said she expects it will devote two to four special meetings to the topic.