Outgoing schools chief busy finishing budget

Friday, December 26, 2008 6:24 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NORTH BRANFORD — Superintendent of Schools Robert Wolfe is retiring from his position at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean he is planning to take it easy for the next week.

Wolfe is hoping to finish a draft budget for the school district for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Incoming Superintendent Scott Schoonmaker’s contract begins Thursday.

“I’m going to finish the budget and hand it over to the new superintendent, then he can make whatever changes he wants to,” Wolfe said. “I don’t think it’s fair for a new person to start from scratch.”

Like many years, Wolfe said, he and district Business Manager Don Winnicki could be working up through the end of the year.

“We always use the time between Christmas and New Year’s to finalize numbers in the budget,” he said.

Wolfe, who has been superintendent since 2001, said he will continue to oversee the district’s summer camp program, whose theme this year is “Do You Believe in Magic?” That program drew 2,130 registrations last summer, an increase of about 350 over the previous year.

As for his role as superintendent, Wolfe said he will most miss working with students every day. He plans to continue teaching finance at Southern Connecticut State University.

“I’m going to miss the kids,” he said. “The kids are great — from kindergarten to high school, I think all our kids are great.”

Board of Education Chairwoman Deborah Prunier said that the district will miss Wolfe.

“We’re losing somebody very valuable and in the same breath we are gaining somebody who we are sure will continue through with his vision and have some of his own to only keep North Branford moving forward,” she said.

Prunier pointed to the growth of the district’s arts curriculum, the development of a strategic plan and an improved graduation rate as some of Wolfe’s accomplishments during his tenure.

Wolfe’s last regular school Board of Education meeting this week included a performance by the high school jazz band and a Power Point presentation as well as cake.

“I am personally going to miss him very, very much,” Prunier said. “It’s like losing a friend.”

Wolfe said he has been meeting with Schoonmaker weekly for the past month and is hoping for a smooth transition process.

“I think that January-to-June in every school district in the state is going to be a very difficult time because school districts are not just worrying about costs now, but school districts are going to get slammed by the state on the revenue side,” he said. “They’re going to have less money for education and school systems, so it’s going to be very difficult.”

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Suspect in series of bank heists nabbed

Thursday, December 25, 2008 6:34 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

OLD SAYBROOK — Police have arrested a Shelton man they believe is responsible for a string of bank robberies in Old Saybrook, Madison, Hamden and Shelton.

Jeffrey DeAngelis, 28, faces charges of first-degree robbery, second-degree larceny and second-degree threatening in a Dec. 8 robbery at the Bank of America at 107 Main St. in Old Saybrook. Police did not say how much money was taken in that robbery.

Police also suspect DeAngelis was involved in a robbery of about $1,500 from the NewAlliance Bank in Madison Nov. 28, as well as bank robberies in Hamden and Shelton over the past few months. Surveillance photos from the Old Saybrook and Madison incidents led police to believe the same man was involved.

In each incident, the robber passed a bank teller a note demanding money and saying he had a weapon, according to police. Old Saybrook Deputy Police Chief Michael Spera would not say whether DeAngelis had a weapon on him during the crimes, as the department is still investigating.

“In each and every one of the robberies, he did threaten to shoot people if they did not comply with his demands,” Spera said.

Old Saybrook police executed a search warrant and arrested DeAngelis at his Long Hill Avenue home Tuesday night. During the search, officers seized a vehicle and other items, according to police.

DeAngelis was being held in lieu of $100,000 bail.

After the Old Saybrook robbery, the Connecticut Bankers Association offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case. Spera said that the reward was not paid in this case.

“Since our bank robbery, police officers and our detectives have worked tirelessly following up on every single lead or tip that they were given, some of which did not lead to this individual,” Spera said. “This was true old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground police work, canvassing neighborhoods and interviewing people.”

Revenue stream seen in storm water runoff

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 5:11 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NEW HAVEN — The city is considering setting up an authority on storm water management, a move that could mean tax-exempt entities would face fees for services for which they currently do not pay taxes.

City Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said at an informational meeting Monday that creating a storm water authority could have both environmental and financial benefits for the city, as some of the costs homeowners pay for storm water sanitation could move to tax-exempt groups such as universities and religious institutions.

Smuts hastened to add that tax rates would not go down, but that some people could pay proportionally less. The action also will most likely not have an effect on the 2009-10 budget, he said.

The city’s study for creating a storm water authority was mostly financed by the state, following legislation in 2007 to assist communities interested in the prospect. Norwalk and New London are also looking at the same idea.

The storm water authority could be an independent body, like the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority, a quasi-governmental group or a department within City Hall, Smuts said. The city is still analyzing details such as how a fee would be assessed, what benefits residents could receive for making water-runoff improvements to their homes and what incentives could be forthcoming from the state.

A storm water authority would deal with the water that runs into city sewers following storms. The amount of impervious surface — including pavement and structures — on a property affects how much water is absorbed into the ground or runs off into the sewers, meaning that the city could decide to give benefits or rebates to those with more water-friendly lots.

“The thing that we’re concerned about is runoff water, so if you have an open field, that pretty much absorbs all the water and there’s not runoff,” Smuts said. “If you have a paved parking lot, that’s all runoff.”

He added that the average residential property in the city has a 6,000- to 8,000-square-foot lot with 3,000 square feet of impervious surface.

Right now, funding for storm water management — which covers street cleaning, storm drainage and capital improvements — comes out of the general fund, meaning it is paid for with property taxes. The city spends about $4.75 million a year on its storm water program.

With a fee system, Smuts said, some of that burden could move off residential land owners.

“This would not make sense from a (tax) equity standpoint for our taxpayers if we did not have a tremendous amount of tax-exempt property, or if our industrial property did not have significantly more impervious surface than they currently pay in taxes,” he said.

Alderman Roland Lemar said the proposal seems to make sense for environmental and economic reasons.

“These are services that we are going to provide one way or another,” he said. “The mechanism that you’ve constructed here allows us to collect money from entities that we cannot currently collect money from.”

But Alderman Jorge Perez said he wants more information on how the fee would be assessed and what discounts people could receive for improvements such as reducing the pavement on their lots or buying rain barrels to collect water from gutters.

“I would definitely like a better understanding of, if we’re going to get credits, how we’re going to do that,” Perez said.

Smuts said that the proposal would come before the Board of Aldermen once many of the remaining details are determined.

“We want to do this now because we’re required to have an informational hearing before we do the report and also because we want to get people in on the ground floor, but we haven’t made any decisions,” he said.

Open space nears vote in Guilford

Monday, December 22, 2008 6:31 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Officials have set Jan. 27 for a townwide referendum on spending nearly $15.5 million to preserve 624 acres of open space along the East River.

In October, the town announced an agreement with members of the Goss family, which has owned the land since the 1920s, to buy the area known as the East River Preserve.

The town plans to keep 577 acres as open space, and possibly develop about 70 acres as playing fields in the future.

The referendum would also include purchasing about 40 adjacent acres from the Zipp family estate, First Selectman Carl Balestracci said, to be included in the open space preserve.

Both parcels lie in the area of Clapboard Hill and Podunk roads, north of the Exit 59 interchange off Interstate 95.

The selectmen, Board of Finance and Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved bonding for the project and voted to send the question to voters.

A town meeting is scheduled for Jan. 14 at the Guilford Community Center, with the referendum taking place Jan. 27.

All five voting districts will vote at the fire station at 390 Church St.

The town has already received approval for $3 million in federal funds toward the project, although Balestracci said the grant could expire if the project is not approved by March.

The state legislature also approved a $3 million grant, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell has not signed the legislation.

“Any monies that come in from the state will be used to pay down the bond,” Balestracci said.

Despite the adverse economic climate, town officials are enthusiastic about the purchase and are hoping that voters will support it.

Balestracci called it a “one-time opportunity” to preserve the area for future use.

The owners had considered subdividing it into more than 100 parcels.

“A lot of people are nervous about this because they’re saying that in the difficult economic situation that we’re faced with, it’s really going to be difficult for people to vote to approve something like this, but my answer to that is this is an incredible opportunity that we have,” Balestracci said.

“It’s going to take a great deal of courage on the part of the citizens of Guilford to vote, but we do have the $3 million from the federal government.”

Guilford eyesore to be replaced

Monday, December 22, 2008 6:31 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — An eyesore on the Boston Post Road is due for redevelopment as the Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved a proposal for two mixed-use buildings there.

The Fire Department has been using the home at 1486 Boston Post Road, near Interstate 95 Exit 57, for training purposes for about a year, Deputy Fire Chief Wayne Vetre said.

Sunset Creek, which is developing the site, and the Wire Journal next door allowed the department to use the property for several training sessions, Vetre said.

“Having these structures are beneficial to us because we’re able to simulate fire conditions that you can’t simulate in the classroom or in other areas not intended for that sort of use,” he said.

“It’s a significant donation on their part to contribute to our training.”

The burned-out house will now make way for two buildings with retail space and apartments. Sunset Creek is a local development, realty and storage company.

Each building will have a roughly 4,000-square-foot footprint, an engineer for the project told the PZC Wednesday night.

The developers also plan to put in a 10-foot high retaining wall behind the buildings because of a steep hill on the property.

The architectural plans for the new development call for two two-story buildings that would include commercial space on the bottom floors and four one-bedroom apartments on each top floor.

The plan also includes 44 parking spaces.

Commissioners unanimously approved the plan at last week’s regular meeting.

“It appears to be difficult to argue that this is not an improvement over the existing condition of the property,” Commissioner Robert Richard said.

“Regardless of what’s there now, even if it was a vacant site, the architecture I think is just spectacular. It’s going to be a great addition to the town.”

Chairwoman Shirley Girioni agreed.

“I think it’s a huge improvement and a great addition and provides a great gateway to Guilford,” she said.

The building is one of the first drivers see as they enter Guilford on the Boston Post Road from the highway or Branford.

Town task force supports full-day kindergarten

Monday, December 22, 2008 6:26 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NORTH BRANFORD — A task force exploring kindergarten options has recommended that the school district implement a full-day program.

But with financial stresses caused by the adverse economic climate, the cost of all-day kindergarten might be too steep, Superintendent of Schools Robert Wolfe said.

The group’s report put the cost for the school district — including doubling the number of kindergarten teachers — at about $330,000.

Yet, the task force also found that educational research has shown “academic, social, and literacy development benefits of a full-day kindergarten curriculum.”

The report also says that there is enough space at the two schools that have kindergarten students, Jerome Harrison and Stanley T. Williams, to accommodate the longer program.

“I don’t think there’s any question the district should go (to full-day kindergarten) in terms of time on task (and) student instruction,” Wolfe said. “The problem is the cost investment in a year where cost is a factor, revenues are down.”

The report says that moving from four kindergarten teachers and four teacher’s aides to eight of each would cost about $300,000. The additional costs would be for more furniture and instructional materials for the classes.

Wolfe said that moving to full-day kindergarten has been part of the district’s strategic plan since 2002, and he called it a “top priority.” Currently, he said, kindergartners receive less than two hours of instructional time a day.

However, Wolfe said he does not plan to include the cost in the budget he is preparing for review by the Board of Education. He presented the concept to the board at its regular meeting Thursday night and said the members will decide on it.

“If the board wants to add it to the budget, then they can do that,” he said.

The school board is scheduled to begin reviewing the budget in January.

Opponents to appeal Chabad approval

Friday, December 19, 2008 5:41 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King Register Staff

GUILFORD — The years-long debate over Chabad of the Shoreline’s plan for a new synagogue on Goose Lane is finished — at least as far as the Planning and Zoning Commission is concerned.

But a legal battle over the commission’s approval of the plan Wednesday night appears inevitable, as one lawsuit is already under way and opponents are planning to appeal the decision.

Two neighbors of the 181 Goose Lane site, Donna Criscenzo and Sherrye McDonald, filed a lawsuit this summer seeking to enforce a covenant from the 1947 sale of the property limiting its use to residential or agricultural. The suit is pending.

Criscenzo said Thursday that an attorney for the Committee to Save Goose Lane, a group opposing the project, has also started work on an appeal of the commission’s vote.

The PZC split on the issue Wednesday, voting 4-3 to approve Chabad’s application to build a 13,700-square-foot religious facility with a day care center. Chairwoman Shirley Girioni and Commissioners Robert Richard, Jonathan Bishop and Ray Bower voted to grant a special permit for the building. David North, David Grigsby and Michael Scott voted against the application.

Commissioner Noel Hanf recused himself at the beginning of the public hearings, as Criscenzo — who operates a medical practice from her home next door to the site — is his physician.

Criscenzo said Thursday she was “disappointed” and “disillusioned” by the vote.

“If it’s so close, then how do you err on the side of an applicant … when the public support isn’t even there?” she said. “I feel that our evidence was not regarded, or was not given the same consideration as theirs, and I think it should have been.”

But Marjorie Shansky, the attorney for Chabad, commended the commission’s decision.

“I was impressed by the depth of deliberations and gratified by the courage and commitment of the commission members to apply the facts to the law,” Shansky said. She declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.

Rabbi Yossi Yaffe of Chabad of the Shoreline said that the group does not yet have a timeline for construction. In addition to the synagogue, the plans include a home for Yaffe and his family on an adjacent lot behind 181 Goose Lane.

“Our step now is to take this to the next level, where we begin our planning to build a building and garnering support,” which will include fundraising, he said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done with the architectural plans, with whatever legal issues that still remain in the way … but we’re going forward with our plans and whatever comes up we’ll deal with.”

People on both sides of the issue packed the meeting Wednesday night for nearly four hours, including 1 1/2 hours of discussion on the motion. Girioni said the commission spent more than 22 hours on public hearings and deliberations.

Several supporters jumped up and hugged each other after the 11:30 p.m. vote, the outcome of which had been unclear until the moment the four commissioners raised their hands. During the deliberations, Richard, Girioni and Bishop expressed their support for the application, while North, Grigsby and Scott said they did not think it met the criteria for the special permit required for a religious facility.

But shortly before voting, Bower said he was still making up his mind about three issues: the impact on the residential neighbors and the character of the area, the intensity of use and the effect on property values. The 1.3-acre lot, which lies near Exit 59 off Interstate 95, is zoned for residential use and is bordered by houses on both residential and commercial parcels.

“I personally don’t think I’ve seen an issue which has been more controversial or personally more difficult for myself or some of my commissioners to make a decision on,” Bower said during the meeting.

Criscenzo said she thought there should have been further discussion before the vote.

“I think that it was pretty clear that they called the vote or called the question when the swing voter had clearly stated that he had a problem with three issues, and they did not discuss more than one of them,” she said.

The inclusion of a condition limiting the number of occupants appeared to sway Bower toward the “yes” side. But other commissioners — on both sides of the outcome — said that they were uncomfortable including requirements that are not applied to other houses of worship.

“I’m just afraid of discrimination here, discrimination against one particular church — I don’t think that’s fair,” Girioni said.

Grigsby, meanwhile, said he thought the number of conditions showed that “the lot is not of a sufficient size and dimension to permit the use and intensity as proposed.”

The most debated of the 12 conditions of approval was the first, which says that no more than 150 people can occupy the building at any time, except for up to 10 days a year when the number increases to 200.

Shansky said she thinks the condition is in line with Chabad’s projections for its use of the building.

“I think there was an earnest effort to give credit to both the applicant and the opposition that was sometimes confused by the hyperbole, exaggeration and free-ranging anxiety of the opposition, where our numbers were at all times definite,” she said.

Yaffe added that he thinks that tensions will dissipate in the future.

“There are no synagogues in the state that get the sort of numbers that people were bringing up, it doesn’t exist, and the Shoreline is not a densely populated Jewish area,” he said. “I feel the irrational fears are going to be seen by all logical, reasonable people as we get under way as just that.”

The commissioners who voted against the plan said they did not think the applicants had been clear in the number of people who would be attending activities at the synagogue. During the public hearing, Shansky said the facility was designed for 100 people to use at a time, but there could be as many as 200 on important holidays a few times a year.

Criscenzo said the conditions will not help, calling them “a sham.”

“It’s in my face, and they can’t make it better and their conditions can’t make it better,” she said.

Other conditions prohibit Chabad or any future owners from renting the building to third parties, ban amplification of music or voices at outdoor events, and require outside lights other than security lights to be off when the building is not in use.

In the motion to approve, commissioners found that Chabad had met the conditions of approval for a special permit, which are: the new use will be in harmony with the neighborhood and the town and will not impair adjacent home values; the building will have adequate fire access; additional traffic will not cause undue hazards or congestion; the lot is large enough for the building and sanitary facilities; and the architectural design does not conflict with nearby properties.