EAST LYME — As he seeks a third full term as East Lyme’s chief executive, First Selectman Mark Nickerson said he hopes to win re-election based on his 20 years of experience in town government, long-term planning for economic development, public safety improvements, and seeking budget efficiencies through shared services with other towns.
“East Lyme is one of the premier towns on the shoreline, and we didn’t get that way by accident. We got that way by steady leadership and big picture plans and getting things done,” the Republican incumbent said in an interview with CT Examiner in his office. “I don’t think East Lyme voters are going to want a change. We have a great momentum and we still have lots of plans for the future of making our town better and better.”
Nickerson originally came into the town’s chief executive job five years ago to fill a vacancy left when Paul Formica was elected to the state senate. Prior to that, Nickerson had been a selectman for five years and before that served ten years on the Zoning Commission.
He won elections as first Selectman in his own right in 2015 and 2017. This fall he’s facing a challenge from Democratic Board of Finance member Camille Alberti.
Nickerson also owns and runs two Geico offices in Waterford and Rhode Island. Being first selectman is his primary job, he said, but he credited Geico with encouraging him — long before he was first selectman — to get out into the community and give back through fundraisers and events for sailors and other area military and community groups.
He said being first selectman means being “the leader, the motivator, the big picture guy.” The East Lyme first selectman oversees a budget of about $75 million in taxpayer dollars and 22 different departments heads and requires him to manage everything from public safety to emergency services and transportation, while also trying to keep mill rates low and property values up.
“I get to oversee and make sure that this puzzle piece over here and that puzzle piece over there connect,” he said. “I find efficiencies in all that, and I find collaboration not only within our town but with other towns. It’s a monumental job and it’s a great job.”
During the interview, Nickerson noted that his time on the Zoning Commission first exposed him to several issues that have continued and matured up to his time as first selectman.
He said he was happy to have cut the ribbon last year on a park at the intersection of Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, which he saw as a continuation of economic development work he had done in Niantic while on the commission.
“We have awesome restaurants now and we have people walking the sidewalks and we have a beautiful parks,” he said. “The renaissance of Niantic Main Street is something I’m very proud of.”
Development, housing, and Costco
When asked what were the most important issues facing the town in the next two years, Nickerson pointed to the town’s efforts to work with a developer whose application was denied for a 1,500-unit housing complex on Oswegatchie Hills.
Over about 20 years, the town has fought the developer’s appeals, all while citing environmental concerns that construction on the granite hills could cause runoff flow into Niantic River and Long Island Sound, Nickerson said.
At the same time, Nickerson said, he and other town leaders have been working on a “parallel track” for a compromise with the developer.
The solution “might be some development to allow [the developer] to get back some of his money and then us purchasing some of the rest with state, federal, and municipal money. And we’ve identified some of that state and federal money,” he said.
In discussing affordable housing more broadly, Nickerson said that he feels the town has made progress in offering housing that the workforce can afford. He noted that another housing development is planned near the former Honeywell building and that Gateway Commons — the development that includes Costco — will also include rental housing accessible to young families, early career professionals, and older parents whose children might have moved out and are now seeking to downsize.
He noted that Costco, expected to open in mid-November, will bring both more tax revenue and more traffic into the town, but he said thinks it will be good for the town and area business.
“My impression has been that most people are embracing the arrival of Costco, throughout the region and in our town,” Nickerson said. “It will change a little of the dynamic in the highway district of our town, there’s no doubt about it. It will be a traffic generator and it will bring a different vibe to that area. I think we’ll see an upgrade to some of that area.”
Nickerson said his administration has made progress on several fronts related to public safety. The town launched an independent police force in 2017 after decades in the resident state trooper program. He said this didn’t entail hiring any new police officers, but did give the town a locally-based police chief who “has a better handle 24 hours a day 7 days a week of where the officers are deployed and where the need is in our town.”
In February 2019, referendum voters also approved $5 million to purchase the former Honeywell office building and renovate it into a new police station.
“Where [the police] sit now is in a very old building, 89-year-old building,” Nickerson said, “where not much work has been done in those 89 years and we said finally that we have to invest in our public safety. So we bought this office building and that’s a big deal.”
The town has also recently added two overnight firefighters through a contract with a professional ambulance service to supplement overnight emergency coverage and formed a Traffic Advisory Council to attempt to change traffic behavior around town.
Working with the state and regionalization
Nickerson praised East Lyme’s legislators, Rep. Holly Cheeseman and Sen. Paul Formica, but said that state government tends to be his “biggest challenge.”
The town has five major properties exempt from local taxes— two National Guard bases, Rocky Neck State Park, Nehantic State Forest, and the York Correctional Institute. But Nickerson said funding through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funds has been “slashed” and underfunded even though East Lyme’s police and firefighters sometimes have to respond to emergencies at these properties.
State government has presented challenges in education mandates, he said, setting high demands on towns to provide education services, particularly in special education, while the state fails to provide funding to towns to support those services.
“They have unfunded mandates for special education where they demand and demand but they’ve never backed it up as promised through the federal special education bills that were passed 30 years ago,” Nickerson said. “They’ve never been fully funded, they’ve never been funded properly even at cost sharing.”
To cut costs amid declining state supports, Nickerson said that it’s essential for towns to find areas they can regionalize and share services with neighboring municipalities.
He pointed specifically to East Lyme being a member in the Ledge Light Health District (which serves 9 towns), regionalized animal control service, contracting out its police detention and certain evidence handling to Waterford, and sharing water systems with Waterford, as example of where his administration has saved money.
At different points in the interview, Nickerson said that even though East Lyme’s top leadership and boards have been dominated by Republicans for most of the last few decades, local government consistently is much less partisan than Washington or Hartford.
“You can look at any board or commission and not tell the Democrats or Republicans by how they speak, how they vote, and how they treat one another,” he said. “We do it for the best of the town and that’s been East Lyme’s success.”