Shoreline residents discuss need for ‘smart growth’

Sunday, September 28, 2008 6:44 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register staff

BRANFORD — With a looming budget crisis in Hartford and national financial turmoil, state and local officials met with Shoreline residents Saturday to discuss new ways to raise revenues and decrease some of the towns’ property tax burden.

The meeting at Canoe Brook Senior Center was a nonpartisan event dealing with property tax reform and smart growth. It was organized by Lonnie Reed, a Democrat running unopposed for the state House of Representatives in the 102nd District, and 1000 Friends of Connecticut, an advocacy group.

Participants talked about ways to encourage “smart growth” in local towns — which they generally defined as building close to town centers and preserving open space — as well as to reform the tax system.

State Rep. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who is the head of a state legislative Smart Growth Working Group, noted that Connecticut puts the greatest reliance on property taxes in generating money. That can cause problems for people whose home values rise faster than their incomes, as has been common in many Shoreline towns with high property prices.

Sharkey said that some steps the group is considering include allowing towns to pool together to purchase supplies or to develop regional development plans and share some revenues. He added that a long-term change to the tax system would integrate items like housing, transportation and economic development and use regional partnerships to create efficiency.

“There is an overreliance in the state on property tax,” he said. “You want to have a good mix of tax revenue sources and in most states that includes an income tax, a property tax and a sales tax. … We have sort of an off-kilter three-legged stool in Connecticut.”

The General Assembly’s Legislative Task Force on Property Tax Reform and Smart Growth has been working since March to address some of the problems with the tax system. Sharkey said the group plans to introduce a package of bills around the issue in the next legislative session.

“The property tax problem is a much, much bigger problems than just lowering your tax bills,” Sharkey said Saturday. “It has to do with much more, which is about making Connecticut competitive.”

In 2007, Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a Democratic tax plan that would have raised income taxes on the wealthy and lowered them for middle-class residents.

State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, noted that he voted against the 2007 tax bill because he was worried it could create instability in the system.

“Much of (the wealth in Connecticut) comes from the stock market,” he said. “That’s an issue for Connecticut because we’ll be basing our budget on a much more volatile source of income.”

State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said that in order for towns to generate property tax revenue, he favors building close to existing town centers in order to avoid sprawl. He pointed to the proposed Madison Landing development in Madison as an example of a project that was approved partly for tax reasons.

“This happened because the town of Madison, like many towns, is property-tax starved,” he said. “Land-choice decision was made because of property taxes (is) very, very unfortunate and yet it’s happening all across the state of Connecticut.

Meyer’s Republican challenger in the race, Ryan Suerth, said he agrees with the smart growth concept.

“It’s not political, it’s just common sensical,” he said. “We need to have a nonpartisan approach.”

He added that he also wants to make Connecticut “a more business-friendly state” in order to offset some of the burden on homeowners.

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Low ridership spurs bus officials to make changes

Saturday, September 27, 2008 6:57 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

After months of low ridership, officials want to rework the “R-Link” bus service connecting North Branford, Branford and North Haven.

The bus line, which began running in February, has failed to attract enough riders to make the service cost effective. Now the Greater New Haven Transit District, which operates R-Link, and the Council of Governments want to change the route in order to draw more customers.

Council of Governments Executive Director Judy Gott said that the new route would offer more options for people commuting to work and would focus on the Branford train station. Currently, the bus is geared toward people doing errands during the day, with stops along routes 22 and 139 at the Stop & Shop stores in Branford and North Haven and stores in the Northford section of North Branford.

“Because ridership has been very low, we’re going to try a new approach,” Gott said.

She added that she does not have specific ridership numbers, but that they have been lower than expected.

Gott noted that the shopping situation has changed since R-Link started running, with a Big Y supermarket opening in North Branford, possibly eliminating some people’s need to travel to different grocery stores.

“We’re evidently not hitting the mark on what people want, so we’re going to try to adjust that to meet what the citizens need,” she said. “We thought we could accommodate everyone — the shoppers, (people going to) the doctors and the train people — but we don’t have enough hours in the day or enough buses to do that, and we need to focus on one rather than spreading ourselves too thin.”

Gott said the new schedule will be oriented toward meeting the morning and evening trains at the Branford train station so that commuters can use the bus service.

Currently, riders have to transfer to another bus at the terminus of the R-Link line in order to reach the train station.

The regular fare for the service is $1.25. Along with the fixed route, bus drivers will also pick up and drop off at people’s homes — within three-quarters of a mile of the route — for an additional fee. R-Link operates Monday through Friday from about 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Gott said she hopes the changes to the schedule will be in place “within the next month or two.” In the meantime, she said, area residents may contact the Council of Governments to offer input on the service changes.

“We really had such a plea from North Branford folks that they wanted this service and really there’s very little usage from North Branford, and until we can figure out why we would welcome people to e-mail us or call us or do whatever and tell us why they’re not using that service,” she said.

In fact, North Branford Deputy Mayor Joanne Wentworth noted at a recent Town Council meeting that she has not seen many people using the service.

Despite the struggles with the current service, Gott said the transit district and Council of Governments are still looking to add similar regional transit options in area towns such as Woodbridge or Hamden.

“We hope that people will use the service,” she said. “We can expand it once people find how wonderful it is.”

Mayor discusses Quinnipiac Ave. work

Friday, September 26, 2008 6:46 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NEW HAVEN — With work on the Ferry Street bridge completed, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. told Quinnipiac Avenue area residents Thursday night that work can proceed on improving that road.

But there are still several holdups on the project, including budgeting and land acquisitions, and DeStefano said there is no firm timeline for when work could begin.

The cost for reconstruction of the road from about Clifton Street to Judith Terrace is currently $9.2 million. In addition, initial talks with Buckeye Pipeline have put the cost of relocating a pipe on Quinnipiac at $1.8 million.

The state Department of Transportation is continuing work to acquire portions of 69 properties in order to proceed with the work. DeStefano said he hopes that will be completed next year, but it could take until 2010.

In order to speed up the process, he said, the city could split the project into two phases. The first phase would cover most of the avenue, from Clifton to Lenox Street, and the second would cover the rest of Quinnipiac once funding becomes available.

“I think it makes sense to split it into phase one and phase two,” DeStefano said.

He also addressed the issue of the Grand Avenue bridge, which he said will need work in the next few years. He said he is hoping to start initial design work on the bridge next year to get a sense of the repairs needed, but construction most likely would not start until 2011 at the earliest.

“The bridge needs work, and I’d rather learn from Ferry Street and do it on our schedule, rather than its — the bridge’s — schedule,” he said, referring to the fact that the city had to declare the Ferry Street bridge unsafe and close it in 2002.

Christopher Ozyck, a Quinnipiac Avenue resident who attended the meeting, said he is worried that “rumors” about the Grand Avenue bridge closing could scare off people looking to invest in the neighborhood. Addressing the Quinnipiac project, he said he does not think the right-of-way acquisitions should hold up the work. “I’m unhappy with the process,” he said. “It seems like it’s putting the whole project in jeopardy.”

Carolyn Chistmann, another neighborhood resident who recently wrote to DeStefano about the work, said that she has been frustrated by the shifting dates for the project.

“I hear the optimistic solution and that’s encouraging, except not when we look at what we’ve been told through the years,” she said, noting that earlier projections had work starting in 2007, and later in August 2009.

“Suddenly we’re told that its best-case scenario construction starting in 2010,” she said

Several people said that the heavy and fast traffic on the road and some blighted properties that make sidewalks impassable have created a need for an immediate solution.

After listening to residents’ questions and concerns for almost two hours, DeStefano said his staff will look into a number of issues and report back to the group. He tentatively set Oct. 23 for another meeting.

Synagogue opponents speak out at public hearing

Thursday, September 25, 2008 6:24 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Opponents of a plan to build a religious center on Goose Lane criticized it at a public hearing Wednesday night as an overly large development that would change the character of the neighborhood for the worse.

The hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission was the third so far on Chabad of the Shoreline’s application to build a synagogue and day care center at 181 Goose Lane. After the applicants and their experts gave evidence at the first two hearings, an opposition group — the Committee to Save Goose Lane — began its presentation Wednesday.

An attorney for the committee, Edward Cassella, said the proposed 17,000-square-foot center near the Exit 59 interchange of Interstate 95 does not meet the town’s special permit requirements, which include provisions that a development not adversely affect neighboring properties or impede fire safety access.

Guilford requires a special permit for a house of worship in any zone.

“We have no objection to the Chabad settling in Guilford,” Cassella said. “We … do not think that this is the perfect use for this site. We think that the perfect use for this site is the use that is there now.”

The property, which is in a residential zone, has a multifamily house on it. Marjorie Shansky, an attorney for Chabad, said at an earlier hearing that the synagogue would be a good “transition” use for the land, with its proximity to the Yale-New Haven Shoreline Medical Center, an industrial park across the street and the residential area to the north on Goose Lane.

David Spear, a traffic consultant hired by the committee, said that, according to his analysis, large emergency vehicles would not be able to navigate the site. He noted that the plans only include one entrance and exit.

Commission Chairwoman Shirley Girioni, however, said that the town’s Police and Fire departments have reviewed the plans.

Spear also questioned the numbers a traffic consultant hired by Chabad used in his analysis.

Commission member Michael Scott noted that Spear’s report included a need for further study.

“It stopped short of saying the proposed project creates a traffic problem,” Scott said. “What is the impact, do you think, of the building?”

Spear said that he was hired to review the applicant’s analysis, but added that he thinks the road would still be functional.

“Except for maybe peak High Holy Days (in the Jewish calendar), you probably are going to be at a reasonable level of service out there,” he said.

Karen Flatley, a member of the committee, said she doubted Chabad’s estimate that about 100 people at most would use the synagogue at a time.

“We know that the intensity of use in the first few years will be less, but you don’t build a 17,000-square-foot temple/community center to accommodate a few people,” Flatley said.

“The reality is, this is a 100-seat sanctuary, and from time to time, more people will attend,” Shansky said, adding that the site will probably attract large crowds only a few days a year.

The public hearing will likely be continued to a later date, at which members of the public will be able to make statements for or against the proposal.

Cassella said that, in considering regulating a religious institution, the Planning and Zoning Commission can deny the application as long as the decision is based on “neutral policies of general application.”

“A special permit is a privilege and it’s not a right,” Cassella said. “They are seeking approval from you (the Planning and Zoning Commission) to put something on this property that is not allowed as of right.”

Ex-school worker suspect in copper thefts

Saturday, September 20, 2008 6:00 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

Branford police are investigating a former Guilford public schools employee for allegedly fraudulently ordering and stealing copper from the school district.

The theft of about $1,200 worth of copper and tools occurred sometime this summer, Branford Deputy Police Chief Thomas Fowler said. Guilford school officials noticed something was amiss when they received a bill for the copper, despite having never received the materials.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said it appears the ex-employee, who he described as a support staffer, ordered copper pipe without authorization.

“It was our feeling that there was a theft so we reported it to the police,” Forcella said.

He added that the man worked for the school district for about two weeks and was fired in the wake of this incident.

Guilford police turned the complaint over to Branford police because the supply company involved is located in Branford, Fowler said.

After investigating the incident, a Branford officer spoke with the former employee school officials had suspected and is applying for a warrant to arrest the employee. Police did not release the person’s name because the investigation is still ongoing, and Forcella did not identify him.

Fowler said it appears the former employee had access to the materials before they were delivered to the school district.

Guilford had construction projects under way at Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School, Abraham Baldwin Middle School and Guilford High School over the summer.

The district received two invoices for the materials dated Aug. 4 and Aug. 15, Fowler said, at which point officials realized that there was a problem. He added that the ex-employee could be arrested in the next few weeks.

Filmmaker targets young voters in documentary

Saturday, September 20, 2008 6:03 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — With Election Day fast approaching, many politicians and pundits are focusing on young adults as a key demographic.

One Connecticut teen decided to channel that interest into a documentary about young people and the voting process.

David Burstein, 19, spent two years interviewing lawmakers, activists, candidates and others in the political arena to produce “18 in ’08,” his film aimed at 17- to 24-year-olds who will be voting for the first time this year.

On Sunday, Guilford’s Women and Family Life Center will hold a screening of the 35-minute film, followed by a panel discussion with Burstein, who is originally from Weston, as well as state Sen. Ed Meyer, state Reps. Deb Heinrich and Patricia Widlitz, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Guilford First Selectman Carl Balestracci Jr.

The town’s registrars of voters are also scheduled to attend the event, allowing people to register to vote that day.

Leslie Krumholz, program director for the Women and Family Life Center, said she was inspired to organize the event after seeing the documentary at Guilford High School last winter.

“It’s a nonpartisan viewpoint looking at why and how kids are engaged or should be engaged in their communities,” Krumholz said. “We thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to engage the community and the Shoreline just given that the election is so much in the news.”

The movie has grown into an organization, also called 18 in ’08, with the goal of engaging young voters with the 2008 election.

Sunday’s screening in Guilford is one of hundreds across the country the group has organized in the past few months.

Burstein, who was in Louisiana this week for another screening, said that part of the film is a “call to action” for young people to become more involved with politics and their communities.

“In the early primaries and caucuses, we saw 6 million young people turn out and vote, which is just an absolute record number for a primary, and all signs point to an even greater turnout in the general election,” he said. “Now we have a chance to take that and turn it into political power.”

Now a sophomore at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Burstein started the film when he was 16 and a student at Weston High School.

Prior to working on the film, he was the director of the Westport Youth Film Festival, which showcases movies by high school students.

The film, which was first released last June, coordinates with the 2008 election, but does not deal with the partisan campaigns.

“It doesn’t really address the election so much as it uses the election as an occasion to think about these things,” Burstein said.

He added that after the election is over, the 18 in ’08 organization will continue a focus on young people in politics.

“There’s going to be a lot of work to do after the election and we’re starting to think now about a long-term future and how we are going to take the millions of young people who turn out in this election and give them a continued voice,” he said.

The screening is free and starts at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Women and Family Life Center on Church Street.

The Guilford Fair: Animals, music, food … oh my!

Friday, September 19, 2008 12:02 PM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Cattle, goats, horses, circus performers, singers and even elephants are all scheduled to make an appearance at the Guilford Fairgrounds this weekend.

The annual Guilford Fair returns starting today to the fairgrounds on Lovers Lane. The fair, which has been running since 1859, features farming contests like tractor pulls and animal judging, as well as carnival rides and circus shows every day.

The parade, which kicks off Saturday’s events, starts at 10 a.m. and its theme this year is “The Wild West.”

At nearly 150 years old, the fair is the second oldest in Connecticut and is put on by the Guilford Agricultural Society. It traditionally takes place the third weekend of September, rain or shine.

Nancy Maturo, the vice president of the Agricultural Society, says the group has been working for several weeks to prepare the fairgrounds.

“We’ve got some new food here, and we’ve got a very big petting zoo, and we’ve got wonderful entertainment,” Maturo says. “You get an awful lot for your money.”

The fair maintains its agricultural roots with a wide variety of farm-based competitions. Hundreds of items will be entered for judging in categories like baking, quilting, canned goods, jams and jellies, flower arrangements, knitting and sewing. There are also animal competitions for dairy and beef cattle, horses, draft oxen, goats, sheep, swine, poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs and other small animals, as well as prizes for dozens of different types of vegetables and fruits.

Entries for the competitions closed last week.

Maturo says that many departments reported an increase in entries this year.

“Tents will be bulging with entries,” she says. “We draw people from all over the country for this fair, from California, Massachusetts, all up and down New England.”

Andy Griggs, The Spectacles and Chad Burdick make up the musical entertainment at the fair.