Hearing set in Guilford on blight ordinance

Saturday, January 31, 2009 5:52 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — After a more than yearlong hiatus, the Board of Selectmen will again take up a proposed blight ordinance at a public hearing Monday night.

The board discussed the ordinance and held public input sessions in 2007, but did not take any action because the town attorney made some changes to the document, First Selectman Carl Balestracci said.

Most of the changes had to do with terminology and making sure the enforcement aspect of the ordinance was legal and conformed with state statutes, he said.

The proposed ordinance would allow the town to cite and fine residents whose property constitutes “housing blight.” Properties that fall under the definition could include those that constitute a health or safety hazard, attract illegal activities, are open to the elements and dilapidated, and have garbage or unused items like boats and cars in public view. The ordinance establishes a fine of $90 per day for residents found to be in violation, and also sets up a Blight Appeals Committee to hear appeals of citations.

Balestracci said the town does not frequently have problems with blighted properties, but there have been circumstances in which town officials were not able to act because of the lack of an ordinance.

“It’s not that it’s a daily problem in Guilford, but when we do have a problem, it usually is in a residential area,” he said. “It’s something that the neighbors really over history have come to us and said, ‘Please, you’ve got to do something.’”

Groups including town planning and health officials and the Guilford Preservation Alliance contributed to the draft ordinance, Balestracci said.

The ordinance would give special consideration to the elderly, disabled or low-income residents, according to the draft. If someone cannot maintain their home because of these circumstances, the town may allow “a reasonable amount of time to correct the problem,” the draft says.

Balestracci said that some people at the 2007 hearing had questions about how many boats or cars would be allowed on a property. The draft ordinance says that it applies to vehicles that are unregistered or missing parts, and are “not complete in appearance and in an obvious state of disrepair.

Balestracci added that the blight provisions cover areas that can be seen from public streets or neighboring properties. “This is not meant in any way to harass citizens, it’s really just to give the town a tool to clean up situations that are problematic in some of our residential areas,” he said. “Of course it’s a hobby for (some people) to restore boats or to restore automobiles, so we wanted to be reasonable.”

He added that the ordinance would most likely be enforced in response to complaints about particular properties.

The public hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Nathanael B. Greene Community Center, and the Board of Selectmen could vote on the ordinance at the same meeting.

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OY VEY! Opponents of Guilford synagogue file lawsuit

Friday, January 30, 2009 1:42 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Two Goose Lane residents are suing the Planning and Zoning Commission over its December approval of a plan to build a synagogue and day care center next to their homes.

The lawsuit says that the commission “acted illegally, arbitrarily and in abuse of the discretion vested in it” in approving Chabad of the Shoreline’s application for a religious center at 181 Goose Lane.

The plaintiffs, Donna Criscenzo and Sherrye McDonald, whose homes are next door to the Chabad property, claim in the suit that the commission lacked evidence that the synagogue would not cause undue traffic problems or adversely affect nearby property values.

“Our feeling was that the case was pretty self-evident (and) that the data was there for us to win,” Criscenzo said. “The application should have been denied on the grounds of the criteria of impact on the neighbors, on quality of life and on harmony, and on property devaluation that will likely occur from having a commercial or a nonresidential high-intensity use.”

During the hearing process, the applicants and the Committee to Save Goose Lane, a group opposing the construction, both hired experts to testify about traffic and housing values.

Town Counsel Charles Andres said the town will prepare transcripts of the more than 20 hours of public hearings.

“It’s an appeal based on the record,” he said. “The judge doesn’t redo the application, but it’s simply reviewing the decision to see whether it’s supported by the evidence.”

Andres said he would wait until the plaintiffs have filed further documentation in the case before commenting on the specific complaints.

Marjorie Shansky, attorney for Chabad of the Shoreline, which is also named as a defendant in the suit, declined to comment on it.

The Planning and Zoning Commission by a 4-3 vote Dec. 17 approved Chabad of the Shoreline’s plan for a 13,700-square-foot building, following months of public hearings that drew hundreds of people. The commission granted the group a special permit, which is required for a religious facility in any zone.

To get a special permit, the applicant must show that 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.

The commission’s approval contained 12 conditions, including a 150-person limit on the building’s occupancy, except for 10 days a year when 200 occupants are permitted.

One of the lawsuit’s claims is that the maximum occupancy condition is unenforceable and is an “unconstitutional infringement on the freedom of religion and establishment of religion under the U.S. Constitution, First Amendment.”

The suit also says that Chabad’s plans do not include enough on-site parking spots and that the organization should not have been allowed to amend its plans in the middle of the public hearings.

The plaintiffs are seeking a reversal of the approval. The suit was filed Jan. 22 in Superior Court in New Haven, and no hearings have been scheduled.

Criscenzo and McDonald also filed a lawsuit last year, saying that Chabad of the Shoreline’s proposal violated a covenant that was included in the deed to the property when it was sold in the 1950s. That suit, in which the plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction against construction, is pending in Superior Court.

School budget workshops under way

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 5:21 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — Parents and Board of Education members discussed funding for special education programs at the board’s first budget workshop this week.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella has proposed spending about $50 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year, an increase of 3.7 percent from the current budget.

Forcella has called the budget conservative. His proposed increase is below recent years’ rate of about 5 percent. But several parents Monday night said they think the board should include funding for literacy programs aimed at special education students.

There is money in the budget for literacy training, Forcella said, although a request for funding to implement specific programs at all the schools was eliminated from the proposal.

“In the budget, a priority was made that we will provide funds, maybe not to the extent we would like to, in terms of intervention (to improve reading),” he said. “If a student is a special-needs child and they need a particular program … there is money in the budget to provide that.”

Forcella said that the district reduced funding for materials and supplies in the proposed budget because of the economy.

Kim Beckett, who has a son in special education in Guilford, asked that the board approve funding for a “comprehensive reading program.”

“We need you to really come up with a really creative idea to put this in the curriculum,” Beckett said, suggesting the district apply for a grant from the Guilford Fund for Education. “Our children really deserve this chance to learn to read.”

Forcella said that some of the technology Beckett mentioned is available in the district, and administrators and teachers decide whether to use it on a child-by-child basis.

Parents and administrators at the meeting discussed setting up a resource section on the school district’s Web site to give parents a better understanding of programs available for their children. Board of Education Chairman William Bloss also said the district is looking to join with nearby towns to save money.

Bloss said that the goal of the budget hearings — a second took place Tuesday night — was to offer more detail on the proposal and gain input from residents. The board is scheduled to act on the budget at a special meeting Monday.

“Anybody who wants to offer thoughts about how we can live within our means during these difficult economic times, let us know,” Bloss said.

Guilford OKs buying 624 acres

Wednesday, January 28, 2009 4:41 PM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — At a special referendum Tuesday, voters resoundingly approved a proposal to spend $15.45 million on 624 acres of open space along the East River.

The measure, the only one on the ballot, passed by a more than 5-to-1 margin, with 2,645 people voting in favor of the plan and 486 voting against it.

The vote paves the way for the town to buy the East River Preserve, a plot north of Clapboard Hill Road, from the Goss family, which has owned it since the 1920s.

Town officials plan to save much of the property as open space, with about 50 acres that could serve municipal uses in the future. The purchase includes about 40 adjacent acres owned by the Zipp family.

Land Acquisition Commission Chairman Gary MacElhiney called the outcome “phenomenal.”

“It’s amazing that the townspeople are just so overwhelmingly in favor of open space,” he said.

First Selectman Carl Balestracci praised voters for supporting the purchase.

“This is preserving something historic and beautiful,” Balestracci said. “The problem today is we’re faced with such difficult times that it took a great deal of courage for the citizens of Guilford to do this, and I appreciate that.”

People from all five of the town’s voting districts cast ballots at fire headquarters, which saw a steady stream of cars Tuesday evening.

Simon Carrington said he voted for the proposal.

“I just think that what Guilford has done to protect open space is marvelous,” he said.

Carrington, a native of Great Britain, said he recently become an American citizen, and Tuesday was his first time voting in the U.S.

“We’ve lived here about six years, so we’ve taken full advantage of the wonderful open spaces that there are in Guilford,” he said.

Thomas Betts, who also voted Tuesday evening, said he was against the purchase.

“I don’t think this is the right time for the town to be spending a great deal of money,” Betts said, adding that he thinks the land should be reappraised.

The town plans to issue bonds to fund the purchase and has secured a $3 million federal grant, which Balestracci said would become available once the purchase is made. He added that officials will continue working to raise private funds to pay down the bond, which will first fall due in 2012.

At a town meeting earlier this month on the project, Balestracci said that the average annual tax increase for residents over the 20-year life of the bond would be 27 cents for every $1,000 of appraised value, or $108 a year for a house appraised at $400,000.

MacElhiney said there are a number of “documentation steps” the town must take to complete the purchase and the grant process, and he expects the closing will be in the second half of the year.

After more than six years of talks, town officials came to an agreement with the Goss family on the purchase last year. In recent months, state and local officials had extolled the virtues of the Goss property — which includes two miles of shoreline along the East River — as an important ecosystem to preserve near Long Island Sound.

“This is a very, very strong statement by Guilford citizens that this is our will that we preserve the quality of life in the community,” Balestracci said.

Split-location delivery of twins ‘a blur’

Monday, January 26, 2009 8:21 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NEW HAVEN — Lisa Rondeau relaxed with her twin boys in her room at Yale-New Haven Hospital Sunday, a day after she made headlines by giving birth to son Colton on her kitchen floor.

Rondeau, 27, who saw some of the news reports following Colton and brother Brendon’s birth Saturday, called the experience “crazy” and “a blur.”

But the mother of two older sons — 3-year-old Dylan and year-old Aidan — said she felt at least somewhat prepared for the events.

“I watch a lot of those baby shows, so I know somewhat what to do, and I didn’t have time to be nervous,” she said.

She and her husband, Phil Rondeau, 31, live in West Haven, but they called 911 on a cell phone and were routed to Milford dispatchers because a cell tower in Milford picked up the signal. The phone at first had difficulty connecting, she said, and by the time the dispatchers had called her back, Colton’s head was already out.

“That’s my nightmare — I always have nightmares about calling 911 and it not going through,” she said. “Luckily, they called me back and I just remember them saying, ‘Is everything OK?’ and me being like, ‘No!’”

Rondeau said she woke up at about 5 a.m. Saturday with a contraction and called her doctor shortly thereafter to say she and her husband would leave for Bridgeport Hospital, where she was supposed to deliver. She quickly realized, however, that she would not have time to make it there.

“The contractions were coming faster and faster, and I just felt like I had to push. I fell to the ground,” Rondeau said. “I started pushing and I told my husband to call 911.”

Colton was born at 5:40 a.m., she said, and her husband suctioned out his nose and mouth to make sure he could breathe. He cried a little and then was quiet, and emergency medical technicians — who Rondeau called “really great and nice” — took mother and son in separate ambulances to Yale-New Haven.

“The paramedics were worried ’cause he looked purple,” she said. “I found out later he was actually purple from coming out so fast.”

Brendon was born at 7:01 a.m., about an hour after they arrived at the hospital.

On Sunday, the boys wore matching royal blue jumpers and saw many well-wishers, including their older brothers and grandparents.

Rondeau said she was 35 weeks along when she gave birth, adding that “twins are usually born about that time.”

Her previous two labors had not been unusually short, she said.

“I thought it would probably go fast (this time) because I just had a baby and because I knew they would be somewhat small, but not that fast,” she said.

The story attracted local media attention Saturday, and on Sunday the hospital fielded a call from the “Today” show about a possible feature on the Rondeaus, hospital spokesman Mark D’Antonio said.

The family had also been filming Lisa’s pregnancy for the TLC show “A Baby Story,” although she said her husband did not have much time to take video during the delivery.

Rondeau called the events “a great miracle” and said the boys are “perfectly healthy.” Colton Xavier and Brendon Jax Rondeau, who are fraternal twins, weighed in at 6 pounds, 4 ounces and 5 pounds, 14 ounces, respectively. But she added that, as for babies, “four is enough.”

Although she did not have time for an epidural injection, as with her first two deliveries, Rondeau said there was not much pain during the birth.

“It was actually kind of nice,” she said. “It was a very natural thing.”

The cupboards are bare

Saturday, January 24, 2009 7:13 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NORTH BRANFORD — The IGA Supermarket closed this week, as owners said they were unable to compete with the new Big Y Supermarket half a mile down the road.

Steve Andrikis, who operated the store for 18 years with his brother, Brian Andrikis, said the market saw a 30 percent drop in business after the Big Y opened in February 2008. The IGA, in the Central Shopping Plaza at Foxon and Branford roads, had heavy discounts on goods this month before closing.

“When they put the (Big Y) store in, it was our demise,” Andrikis said. “We tried to survive for about 11 months and it just came to the point where the bills were piling up.”

Andrikis said the IGA had about 40 employees who were laid off last week. Since then, some family members had been at the store to wrap up the closing.

The economic downturn affected the business, but Andrikis said he believed it would have been able to survive if not for the additional competition.

Andrikis had said Wednesday he was not sure exactly when the store would close, but it would be “within the next day or two.” By Thursday the doors were locked and no one answered the phone. The shelves inside were mostly empty.

During the planning leading up to the opening of the Big Y, many in town wondered whether the smaller IGA would be able to continue operating with a brand-new supermarket so close. In recent months, with the recession affecting North Branford businesses, there has also been speculation about the stability of the Big Y.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, vice president of corporate communications for Big Y, said she had been questioned about the store’s possible closing and said it was just “a rumor.”

“We have no intention of closing this store — it’s barely open,” she said. “It’s been a little over a year and is doing well and is in step with the normal maturation cycle of any market.”

D’Amour-Daley said there may have been overlap between the products at the Big Y and the IGA, but added there were other options for food shopping even before the Big Y opened, such as convenience stores, pharmacies or grocery stores in nearby towns.

Town Manager Richard Branigan said that he met with the IGA owners late last year and suggested they explore state support for small businesses. Branigan said town officials also spoke to the utility companies and plaza landlord about the store.

“At the time of that meeting, there weren’t a lot of options available,” he said. “We tried to do as much as we could, unfortunately, as it turned out, I don’t think that that was enough or it was not successful.”

Andrikis said he was not satisfied with the response from town and state officials. “Everybody else is getting bailed out, but for small businesses there’s no options,” he said. “There’s no money to be borrowed because nobody’s lending at this point.”

Branigan and Andrikis said they were not aware of future plans for the IGA space, and the landlord could not be reached for comment. The 50,000-square-foot Central Shopping Plaza is for sale for nearly $8 million, according to real estate listings.

Andrikis said he will be “actively pursuing a new career path.”

“I had more people crying on my shoulder during this last month,” he said. “We had so many great customers here and the ones that stuck with us, they’re devastated.”

Guilford schools focus on steady gains over time

Friday, January 23, 2009 6:17 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — The school district has made strides in recent years in the area of standardized test scores, but officials are continuing to work to improve student achievement, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella told community members this week.

At his second “State of the Schools” address, Forcella said that Guilford High School students saw “significant gains” in their Connecticut Academic Performance Test scores this year.

But district officials are focusing on raising curriculum standards and instruction, and increasing collaboration among teachers, in order to build on past improvements.

“There are two ways you’re moving — you’re either moving forward or you’re moving backward,” Forcella said. “There’s no such thing as standing still.”

About 75 people attended Wednesday’s event at Guilford High School, a decrease from last year, which was the first time the district had offered a “State of the Schools” presentation for residents. During the talk, Forcella covered topics from the number of students taking Advanced Placement tests, to how to improve school safety and the support the district receives from outside parent groups.

Forcella said that the district’s philosophy is that “all students can achieve.” He also pointed to a recent parent survey that showed that, while 82 percent of parents said that they were satisfied with the school district overall, 65 percent said they feel their children receive the appropriate academic challenge.

“That tells me that the level of rigor has to go up, that we have to provide challenges for kids at all levels,” he said. “Whatever the area is, everybody should be challenged.”

Forcella said that professional development aimed at improving classroom instruction has been a priority for the district in the past few years, and he thinks the results are reflected in the district’s standardized test scores, which rose from 2007 to 2008. He also said the number of students taking AP classes and tests has grown every year since 1995.

“What we found is a significant increase this year, in the state of Connecticut we had the second-highest gains in our CAPT scores,” he said. “Those things don’t happen in one year — it happens over time.”

He also discussed the proposed 2009-10 district budget, which includes a 3.7 percent increase over the 2008-09 package. That is a lower increase than the schools have received in recent years.

But the district is hoping to continue upgrading technology and to make some improvements to Elisabeth C. Adams Middle School, while a task force has recommended replacing the school and the Board of Education has voted to send a proposal to build a new Guilford High School to referendum.

“It is a difficult year and as we look at what we do over time, the best way to budget is to try to keep things as consistent as possible, you don’t want to have a lot of peaks and valleys,” he said. “Our hope is things do turn around (and) this is a one-year blip on the radar screen.”