CHESTER — The Economic Development Commission is pursuing the formation of a “New Applications Group” that would provide businesses and developers with a pre-application process for vetting ideas and plans prior to submitting a formal application.
“It is a best practice among communities that do economic development well,” said Patricia Bandzes, EDC member. “In Portland [CT], they call it the ‘development team’ and their motto is ‘don’t spend a dollar until you come see us first.’”
The idea has been discussed at April, May and August meetings of the EDC, but has not yet gained traction with town officials and commission chairs.
“This is the second time of trying to get this, so obviously it’s a mindset change,” said Susan Wright, EDC chair.
A pre-application process could bring together officials from Inland Wetlands, Planning and Zoning and the Water Pollution Control Authority, and other officials, to talk through issues in advance and ease an application process that would otherwise be slowed by scheduling in a small town like Chester, said Wright.
“In these smaller towns, there’s weird hours for everybody — somebody’s here on a Wednesday or a Thursday, but they’re not here on a Friday. And, the meetings are all a month in between so if they just want to get through an initial process, it takes three months to do that,” Wright said. “The pre-meeting is to try to make it a little easier for everybody and it’s more customer friendly.”
She said some of the developers’ complaints were that by the time they’d worked through the process they’d “already spent all this money on application fees and then they find out it’s not [being approved].”
Bandzes said she attended a Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) presentation last week that emphasized treating businesses and developers as customers and creating a smooth process.
“The question is, is land use easy, consistent and predictable?” she said. “And when they poll businesses and developers looking to expand, they say that’s even more important than offering incentives.”
Convincing town officials is the next step in the process. Michael Sanders, a member of EDC, suggested addressing objections in a positive manner through letter-writing and by asking other towns that use the pre-application process to present to town officials and board members.
“Write a letter saying your feedback is wonderful, but we’re being left in the dust here because there’s other towns that are doing this so we’re at a competitive disadvantage,” said Sanders. “How about inviting one of these other towns in and talking about the value of the pre-app process. Each commission will volunteer someone to attend even though we might not get the chairs.”
EDC Member Adam Perl asked, “Can’t you just say what towns are doing it and how much time it’s saving them?”
One of the objections from town officials has been that Chester is too small to need a pre-application committee, but Bendzes said other small towns were already using the process.
“Get another small town that does it and have them tell how they do it,” Bendzes said. “Again, there’s a lot of towns doing this now.”
The town has a Zoning Enforcement Officer and an Inland Wetlands Compliance Officer but does not have a town planner who could meet with prospective businesses or developers, said Bandzes.
“It’s better to vet it out front, let them know what they’re getting into, how viable is the project, provide all that up front before they start,” she said. “We have no paid staff to do economic development. We need a champion for this at the selectmen level.”
Wright said Chester has a small number of developers talking to the town and that most of the projects in the past year have been proposed by Joseph Mingolello, principal of Connecticut Concrete Solutions LLC of Higganum, who presented a concept for a 55+ condominium complex on Winthrop Road at Monday’s Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.
‘It’s not like we have hundreds or even 50 developers a year at this point, so we’re talking one or two people,” said Wright. “I still feel it’s just the best way to do business.”