October 29, 2019 Debate for First Selectman of East Lyme (Credit: CT Examiner/McDermott)

Nickerson, Alberti Debate Development, Finances in East Lyme

in East Lyme

EAST LYME — At a Tuesday night debate between candidates for first selectman, challenger Camille Alberti accused incumbent Mark Nickerson of mismanaging town finances, while Nickerson argued that East Lyme is in “the best place it’s ever been.”

The candidates debated town administration’s handling of a multi-million dollar plans to purchase the former Honeywell office building and convert it into a public safety complex, as well as other development issues in town, before an audience of about 200 people in East Lyme High School’s auditorium.

Alberti, a Democrat, cited her experience as an accountant, a management consultant, and Board of Finance member. She cast herself as the candidate of fiscal responsibility.

“I see a lot of projects that are being mismanaged and a lot more money being spent than I think is necessary,” she said. “I have a very disciplined approach to project management. That’s what I did for a living. That’s what my job depended on. I came in not only on budget and on time, but I delivered the results that my employers and my customers demanded.”

“I see a lot of projects that are being mismanaged and a lot more money being spent than I think is necessary,” she said. “I have a very disciplined approach to project management. That’s what I did for a living. That’s what my job depended on. I came in not only on budget and on time, but I delivered the results that my employers and my customers demanded.”

Nickerson, a Republican, defended his record and said the town had consistently improved the quality of life of residents during his five years in office and under preceding Republican leadership.

“It is my hope that the voters of East Lyme believe this is not a time for a change,” he said. “Changing our course at this time and heading into a different direction would not be wise. Our town is vibrant, our citizens are passionate about our town, our education system is among the best in Connecticut, and we need to commit to keeping it that way.”

“It is my hope that the voters of East Lyme believe this is not a time for a change,” he said. “Changing our course at this time and heading into a different direction would not be wise. Our town is vibrant, our citizens are passionate about our town, our education system is among the best in Connecticut, and we need to commit to keeping it that way.”

The debate was sponsored by The Day and the League of Women Voters of Southeastern Connecticut.

The Day’s editorial page editor Paul Choniere served as moderator and asked pointed questions tailored to each candidate that cited decisions each have taken in their public lives.

Alberti criticized Nickerson on public safety complex

Alberti repeatedly challenged Nickerson on the cost of renovations to the Honeywell building. She added criticisms that the project has taken longer than it should and claimed that Nickerson rushed the Board of Finance — of which Alberti is a member — to send a referendum to voters on financing the project before they had price estimates.

“If I was in charge of that project I would have ensured that the numbers were concrete before rolling it out,” she said, adding that it might have been worth building a new public safety complex if the project can’t stay under budget.

Preliminary plans presented by hired architects in late September showed design options that could total $6.8 million — well above the $2.2 million remaining after the purchase of the property.

But just hours before the debate, the town subcommittee with oversight on the project met to discuss revised estimates for a design that is only slightly in excess of $2.2 million and with room for additional cost reductions.

Nickerson said repeatedly that he was confident the project would come in under budget.

“We’re going to do this project right. It will be done on budget,” he said. “We were authorized a certain amount of money. It will be on budget. And we will do it right. I am very confident in that.”

Choiniere questioned Nickerson about a guest opinion by Nickerson published in The Day on October 22, where Nickerson wrote that the architects’ preliminary plans were “never intended for public consumption” and had been taken out of context.

“Is it your contention that the public was not entitled to that information and should never have seen it?” Choiniere asked Nickerson.

Nickerson responded: “Of course not, thank you for the question … Of course all the documents are FOIable and public, but the architect… he didn’t expect it to be a public forum. He thought he was meeting with the subcommittee to kind of go over the building and then start talking about the kind of work that needs to be done. His mistake, and he admitted it, was putting a number to it.”

Choiniere also had direct questions to Alberti about her role in plans for the safety complex — Alberti, as a finance board member, had made a motion to reduce Nickerson’s original request from $6 million down to $5 million before sending it to the public referendum. The $1 million difference was estimated to be roughly equal to the cost of detention cells and a sally port for the building.

Choinere asked Alberti, “How can you criticize your opponent for underestimating the cost when you cut the expenditure even further? Shouldn’t you have added money if you felt he was lowballing the project costs?”

Alberti responded that the finance board still wanted more information from Nickerson’s administration before they committed to $6 million for the cells, still thinking that they could get them for cheaper.

“We were told $6 million would be the maximum amount they would need if they included the holding cells and the sally port,” Alberti said. “There was no reason for us to believe that we should have awarded him more money. We thought it was appropriate for us to award less until they sharpened their pencils and came back with a firm estimate from the hired architect.”

She added later, “Here’s the bottom line, folks. This project will come in on budget for $2.2 million. However, that does not include Phase 2, Phase 3, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions more in the coming months.”

Nickerson responded that any Phase 2 for the project would be about the sally port and the detention cells and that if there was a Phase 3, it would be for added municipal uses — such as library administration — separate from public safety.

The candidates offered differing views on development

Alberti said during the debate that it was “absolutely time to take pause” on development in town, particularly after months of construction and planning at Costco and Gateway Commons.

“We need to figure out all of the projects that we have in the pipeline and determine whether our infrastructure can handle those projects coming down the pipeline,” Alberti said. “Right now we have a three-town agreement with New London and Waterford to process our sewage, and we have more projects on the books than we can handle with that.”

If the town exceeded its current sewer capacity, she said, East Lyme would have to renegotiate their deal with the other two towns or invest more capital into sewers.

“We need to figure out all of the projects that we have in the pipeline and determine whether our infrastructure can handle those projects coming down the pipeline,” Alberti said.

Nickerson downplayed Alberti’s concerns about too much development. He brought up that only 4 percent of East Lyme’s property is zoned as commercial or industrial; the other 96 percent is residential or open space.

“We’re not overdeveloped,” he said. “We can’t all of a sudden become this town with all this urban sprawl and big box unless we choose as citizens to change the zoning, and I don’t think anybody has a lot of passion to do that.”

“We’re not overdeveloped,” he said. “We can’t all of a sudden become this town with all this urban sprawl and big box unless we choose as citizens to change the zoning, and I don’t think anybody has a lot of passion to do that.”

He added that he’s already negotiating a new deal with the other two towns in his capacity as chair of East Lyme’s Water and Sewer Commission.

“If we do not get extra capacity for our sewer system, that will hurt development,” he said, “but we can’t just tell a landowner, an owner of a piece of property that they can’t develop unless we go into an emergency moratorium.”

Oswegatchie Hills

Choinere asked Nickerson about a 2015 memorandum of understanding between the town and Glenn Russo, the would-be developer behind a controversial proposal for a housing complex on Oswegatchie Hills. In the memorandum, the town had sought to help the developer swap land in an effort to end a decades-long dispute over the property.

Given that it’s now been four years, Choinere asked, “is it fair to say at this point that that effort failed and if so how do you propose to address the matter moving forward?”

Nickerson said that the effort was unsuccessful because federal regulators had not allowed them to make the switch, but he continued that there’s new “negotiation in place right now. I can’t talk about it now, but I think we’ll hear about it in the next six months about an opportunity.”

Alberti said that the memorandum has yielded “no visible progress” and proposed instead that the town move to raise money to buy the land in partnership with the Save Oswegatchie Hills Coalition, land trust organizations, and federal grants.

“We need to figure out now how we’re going to start raising money to protect these natural resources to protect them for future generations,” she said, “so that even if Oswegatchie Hills doesn’t quite pan out like we hope it will, we can prevent this from happening in the future.”

Nickerson pushed back, saying, “We’re 18 years into this process and not one shovel of dirt has been overturned or developed. The town is winning the battle.”

Alberti raised concerns about drinking water

At one point Nickerson challenged Alberti to bring up specific topics that she felt the town was mismanaging. She mentioned the public safety complex and then added, “I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to the quality of the drinking water that we have in this town.”

She went on to say that she was worried that continued development, particularly Costco’s new gas station, would threaten the town’s water supply.

When Choinere asked Nickerson to respond to Alberti’s concern about a gas station on the town’s aquifer, he responded, “Well, she did half her homework. It’s not on the aquifer. The gas station is not on the aquifer. The state doesn’t allow gas stations to be built on aquifers. That’s a state rule. We couldn’t do it if we wanted to.”

He added that the town also has clear data on where the town’s water is and that “the gas station that is being built has high technology for spills, and it is not on the aquifer.”

Alberti responded that she wasn’t convinced.

“When you shrink the aquifer on a map, it’s easy to bypass the exact regulations. But the point is that there are a four other gas stations within a quarter mile radius of this gas station. Not only are we concreting more surface, more impervious surface, but we’ll probably put out of business a couple of mom and pop stores. Why didn’t we negotiate a deal with one of those gas stations to put Costco over there?”

“Next month will mark my 20th year of dedicated service, commitment, and personal sacrifice that I’ve made to East Lyme. Experienced leadership is the secret to East Lyme’s success. My heartfelt to dedicating our town unselfishly and inspiring greatness in department heads, staff, and commission members is my strength.”

In his closing statement, Nickerson played to his experience in town government, starting almost 20 years ago on the town’s Zoning Commission.

“I love this town,” he said. “Next month will mark my 20th year of dedicated service, commitment, and personal sacrifice that I’ve made to East Lyme. Experienced leadership is the secret to East Lyme’s success. My heartfelt to dedicating our town unselfishly and inspiring greatness in department heads, staff, and commission members is my strength.”

“I make decisions based on a thorough understanding and analysis of the issues at hand with one goal in mind: to serve the people of East Lyme with honesty, integrity and transparency, I have embodied these principles for my entire career and I will continue to live by these principles when in office… If you are proud of our town, but believe we should never stop improving then I am your choice.”

Alberti, in her closing statement, again cited her experience in management and finance as well as her analytical approach.

“I make decisions based on a thorough understanding and analysis of the issues at hand with one goal in mind: to serve the people of East Lyme with honesty, integrity and transparency, I have embodied these principles for my entire career and I will continue to live by these principles when in office… If you are proud of our town but believe we should never stop improving then I am your choice.”

Voters will go to the polls to decide the town’s next chief executive and a number of other elected offices on November 5.