MIDDLETOWN — Given that voters will be asked to choose between seven candidates running to fill three open seats on the Middletown Planning and Zoning Commission next week, CT Examiner reached out to get a better sense of why they are running, what they would bring to the commission, and what they picture for the riverfront redevelopment – a project they all said would be the major development to tackle during their terms, and maybe in their lifetimes.
Three Republicans and three Democrats are competing for full seats on the commission. The Republicans are current Vice Chair Nick Fazzino, former Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, and former Conservation Commission chair Joan Liska. The Democrats are current Planning and Zoning alternate member Shanay Fulton, Inland Wetlands and Conservation member Brian Gartner, and Charter Revision Commission member Kelly Sweeney.
There is also a notable independent candidate – Stephen DeVoto – the current chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission who decided to leave the Democratic Party in order to run as an unaffiliated candidate this year.
Because of the minority party representation rules that allow each party to have at most four members on the seven-seat board, there is only one available seat for the three Democratic candidates, and the Republicans are guaranteed to win at least one seat.
For example, if the three Democratic candidates received the most votes, followed by one of the Republican candidates, and then DeVoto – only the Democrat who received the most votes would win a seat, the next seat would go to the Republican with the most votes, and the last to DeVoto.
CT Examiner spoke with all of the candidates running for full seats, except for Fazzino, who did not return our messages. The following are their answers, edited slightly for length.
WHAT DROVE YOU TO RUN FOR PLANNING AND ZONING COMMISSIONER?
Kelly Sweeney – I always strive to make sure people are getting their fair shake, that their voices are being heard and that they’re being cared about. I sat on the Board of Ethics for several years, and sat on the Charter Revision Commission – where I listened to public feedback and helped build that into the edits that go into the charter.
One of the things that came up during all of that was that people approached me and asked if I told me they didn’t feel that some of their comments were being heard, and they wanted to make sure things were balanced. That immediately resonated with me. And looking at our development in town, and all these great opportunities we have – we need to look at these opportunities, but also ensure we’re not cutting every tree down, that we’re respecting our green space and what’s next to that green space.
Shanay Fulton – Before I became an alternate on the commission in 2019, I was doing a lot of advocacy around Middletown. It started with the Green Street Arts Center, and it was something I was so passionate about. I started to realize how much I loved it and loved the policy and how important housing matters and workforce and transportation were. After taking a business development certificate program, I saw how it all went together, and I wanted to run.
Being an alternate has been a great experience, and I’ve learned a lot. Now I want to expand on that experience and keep doing the work I have been doing. I sit on several boards across the state, for zoning, for workforce development, for housing – and that helps me when it comes to housing matters and to policy.
Brian Gartner – I’m a lifelong Middletown resident. I was born here, and attended Middletown Public Schools. I have my children here and I continue to live here to this day because I genuinely love Middletown.
My last six years of civic service have been so rewarding, and probably some of the best experiences of my life. I feel like I’m giving something back and helping in my own small way the place that helped raise me.
I’m currently on five commissions and committees, and I’ve served on six overall, and we do this in a nonpartisan fashion on behalf of the citizens of Middletown. After being on both the Commission on Conservation and Agriculture and the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency, I figured the next logical step we could take would be to go from an appointed position to an elected position – from the advisory board to the main commission itself.
Joan Liska – I have served in the community in several capacities – I was an Inland Wetlands Commissioner, I was on the Conservation Commission for a number of years, and served as chair in my last couple of years there. I’m now retired, so I felt I had more time to devote to something as demanding as the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Stephen DeVoto – What motivated me to run was the importance of Planning and Zoning to the city for three areas: economic development, environmental sustainability, and housing diversity and equity. These things are so important to the city, to the environmental impact and economic vitality, that I wanted to make a contribution to the long-term vibrancy of the city.
Sebastian Giuliano – To be honest, the party asked me if I would be on the ticket for Planning and Zoning. It’s something that as both mayor and as a member of the Common Council, I had a lot to do with. Given the fact that we’re on the verge of coming up with a plan for our riverfront since the waste treatment plant is no longer there, I thought this was a good time to get involved in that aspect of city government.
Middletown people have a lot of experience with me, so you either like what you see or you don’t. But I’m not going anywhere. I do what I do because this is my home, this is where I’ve chosen to raise my family, and I really do want what is best for Middletown.
WHAT EXPERIENCE AND PERSPECTIVE WOULD YOU BRING TO THE COMMISSION?
Sweeney – There seems to be a general issue with people not knowing what a public hearing is, or that the public hearing gets rescheduled and then people don’t know when it’s rescheduled. There is concern that projects are being started before feedback is actually heard.
I think the perfect example is the decision to allow marijuana businesses to come to Middletown. That’s been accepted, and the commission cited that they didn’t get any public feedback. There were some folks on P&Z who wanted to shelve the topic, which I think would have been a great idea to take a closer look at how it’s going to affect the immediate community where these businesses are located.
I’m the technology deacon at First Church and I have a Master’s of Communication. So I ask, “Is this a situation where people didn’t go, or did people not know there was a hearing?” And when we look at these large-scale development projects that are going to be coming up, there’s going to need to be a large emphasis on communication.
In my professional trade as a digital marketer, I feel like we could do more to leverage technology and get those communications out there. I’d also love to see some old-fashioned marketing as well. When we’re having these riverfront redevelopment discussions, why not have physical signs along Main Street?
Fulton – There are three women on the commission, two of which are Black and alternates. They have the least voice. Many decisions are made on the commission that largely impact our community. We need to have just as much decision-making power, especially given that zoning matters have historically been racially-charged.
Middletown is very diverse, and we want for people to have a voice. As an alternate member, there are times that I wish I could be seated because I have something I want to say. There have been applications that I think we could have looked at differently.
In working in the school district as well as a lot of community work, I know what affects the community because I’ve done asset-mapping projects and other initiatives within the community. So I understand different parts of Middletown.
I want to see housing that is more affordable and equitable for everyone. I want to see more home ownership. I want to utilize our open space, and have trails and expand on trails, and for Middletown to be a place where people want to come to and reside.
Gartner – I’ve been looking at land use issues through the lens of conservation and agriculture, but also through the perspective of protecting our wetlands and watercourses. And I come from the construction industry, where I have seen projects through from the estimation phase to final construction and closeout documents. I hope that I can bring that perspective as someone who has been in the construction industry since I was fresh out of high school.
We need to find a good balance of economic development. We need to get more businesses in the city to get our grand list up, but it needs to be done carefully. I’ve been here my entire life, and seen how Middletown has gone through phases.
Coming from the conservation side, I will continue to advocate for the preservation of open space and getting Middletown residents connected with that open space. So many residents don’t know what’s available to them. And once they do, I’m hoping they’ll have a more vested interest in wanting to help preserve further property down the line.
Liska – Before I retired, I was director of product development for an insurance company. Between my 45 years of experience in commercial underwriting, my Conservation experience and my Inland Wetland experience – I felt I have a good backbone for Planning and Zoning.
I certainly want the community to continue growing the tax base, because that helps to spread the financial burden of each individual taxpayer. The other part is having development that will be aware of conservation issues. It’s a balance between ecological concerns and financial growth.
We have brought in a tremendous restaurant business to the Main Street area. I’d like to see more residential growth in the downtown area.
Giuliano – As mayor, obviously you’re trying to do all grow the grand list and the tax base of the city, and in order to do that, you’ve got to work with the director of planning, and the commission itself. It’s coming up with a plan for how to make the best use of what you’ve got.
You’ve also got to be worried about conservation, and not overdeveloping pieces of land. They’re not making any more of it, so you don’t want to over-develop. You don’t want to stagnate either.
I’ve been paying attention to a lot of what Mayor Erin Stewart is doing over in New Britain, and they’re doing a good job of coming up with reuses in the mature areas of town. Of course, they’re pretty much built out, so they have to focus on that. And I think that’s something we need to focus on is reusing, redeveloping and adapting mature areas.
DeVoto – I have a lot of experience and institutional knowledge, and I think that’s valuable to the city. I’ve been on the commission for 8 years, chair for 5 years, and even before that, I have attended almost all Planning and Zoning meetings since 2005 – years before I was elected. Even before that, I frequently went to meetings with a neighborhood association.
Through that, I’ve built up a knowledge of the history, of the legal aspects of zoning regulations, and of the practical aspects. And that’s really valuable for the city to have someone with experience, who has the right values to make sure the city develops in a way that allows everyone to prosper.
I have also worked with administrations in the city in both parties. One of my first roles, I was appointed by Mayor [Sebastian] Giuliano – ironically, one of my opponents in this election – to a task force to help solve a really contentious issue over where to locate the Major General Maurice Rose reserve center. And I’ve worked in the last few years very well with the Democratic Mayor Ben Florsheim, who has appointed me to be on the Riverfront Steering Committee.
WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO SEE DONE WITH THE RIVERFRONT REDEVELOPMENT?
Sweeney – I would definitely like to see more of the discussion groups. What I’ve learned from canvassing is that a lot of folks knew about the call, and a lot of folks were able to participate and look forward to continued participation, as do I.
On the Riverfront itself, I am somebody who always made time to go down there and sit by the water, and I look forward to the new establishment that comes and I hope there will be other little shops there.
As far as recreation, I was a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club for a while, and am an avid kayaker. I’d like to see recreational activities that people bring with them – bicycling, kayaking and paddleboarding. I’d like to see an establishment to rent that equipment.
Also, if we can put in some kind of cultural space, you know, I’ve always loved participating in cultural events. I see this as a great gathering space. We have great economic development on Main Street, so I see the riverfront as a place where people are going to walk away with a memory more so than with something they’ve purchased.
Fulton – I want to see it look better, have some bike paths and walkways. The path now has a lot of flooding, so that needs to be reconstructed. But it should be like a tourist site, where people come from different towns to visit, because maybe we have a riverfront restaurant, and we have areas where people can sit down on benches and have a picnic.
I would love a restaurant, I would love something like an ice cream shop – a quick little spot that you go to. I’d also like to see something like a tourist type of attraction, something like a kiosk that shows you can go to this part of Middletown for this, and this part for that.
I also want to see something that shows the history of Middletown. We have that underpass that connects the downtown to the riverfront, which I love. It would be nice to have a mural painted on the wall when you go down there. Something that shows the culture and history of Middletown. I definitely want to maintain the Middle Passage display. I want to make sure we always have that, and that every year we pay homage to that.
You have a lot of other towns that have their own riverfront, and I would love for us to stand out in some way.
Gartner – I believe that we’re really at a crossroads here in Middletown. The development of the riverfront is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It needs to be really well thought out, we need community buy in and feedback, and we need a cohesive master plan. We can’t do this hodgepodge.
As a child, I remember downtown being very barren, and it’s had an amazing renaissance over the last several years. Whatever we do at the waterfront, we want to make sure we are complementing everything we’ve accomplished on Main Street, and not drawing away from it.
I would love to see green spaces, open spaces. Maybe a restaurant, maybe some sort of convention facility, maybe a small hotel. I think the most important thing is that the residents of Middletown have been disconnected from the riverfront for so long. I’m hoping that by expanding the area of Harbor Park all the way to River Road, we can really incorporate more hiking trails, opportunities for picnics, so families can get out there and really enjoy this amazing resource we have.
It’s hard to please everyone, but I think we need to get as many voices to the table as possible and come up with something that really has community buy-in where residents are going to be excited about what we’re doing. If this is done right, it’s going to turn Middletown into a true destination.
Liska – There’s so many angles about the waterfront. I have listened to a lot of people who want walking paths and bike paths, and I support that, I think that’s a basic need for down there.
I’d like to see more things that will attract people to come down there, and that will keep them there for a while to enjoy the waterfront. Middletown doesn’t have its own boat launch, I think that’s long overdue to offer for small boats, canoes, kayaks. Some people have talked about allowing a marina. I would be okay with a small marina, but not a large marina, because I’m concerned too much boat traffic would be harmful to the environment because of the fuel.
I’d also like to see more activities on the landing area, things that would bring people of all ages down there to enjoy the views and spend some time in the open air, away from their computers. Say, for instance, we set up some tables and chairs where they can play games, or they can play bocce. Activities that encourage interactions among community members, to get down there and get a little bit of exercise and enjoy the fresh air.
There was also talk of having an open-air kind of entertainment venue. I would be open to that, say not only for prearranged events, but also for some of our local musicians to practice their guitar music or brass music, or whatever it is – but to be out there with the community enjoying the day.
We are also talking about what kind of hard structure might come in, and I’d like to see what options are presented. I’d be open to it, but it has to be balanced with our downtown community, because we don’t want to detract from those businesses that are downtown. We want to supplement them in some way.
And whatever hard structure is put down there has to consider the flooding, so everything would have to be elevated to a certain level to make sure we don’t have constant flooding of the first floor. People have been talking about, should we have living quarters down there? I’ll be open to looking at it. I think it would perhaps be a good balance because people who are living down there are there all the time and watching, which will help keep crime under control.
Giuliano – I would like to see a master plan over that area – not just the properties that are publicly-owned, but privately owned property that’s adjacent to it. I see a great potential for an increase in value there.
Everybody points to Storrs Center, that was done with a master plan. The idea of a master plan is that it’s less focused on the actual uses of the properties, and more focused on the appearance. Developers like that because they know that if they pretty much conform to the master plan, that approval is virtually guaranteed, because you’re meeting conditions that are set. They also like knowing that what’s around them is going to meet those same standards, so they don’t have to worry about what’s next door bringing down their value.
The other thing I would look at is, everybody talks about connecting the riverfront to downtown. But I don’t see Route 9 going away, and as long as that’s there, it’s a major obstacle to that kind of approach. So I would look at it as if you can’t connect them – don’t assume it’s going to happen.
Obviously industry you don’t want to put there, but I want to see some mixed use. This is how you create a residential community there. When I was a kid, we lived on Main Street and my grandparents lived on Main Street, and everything my grandmother needed was within walking distance. Once redevelopment came and said people were going to live on the outskirts, downtown was competing with other places that were options once you got in your car.
I think, both in the riverfront and the central area of Middletown, if we can establish a solid residential component, the business uses will follow that.
DeVoto – It is maybe the most important development that will happen in our lifetime, maybe even in the lifetime of our children. I’m hoping that at the end of this process, based on community input, the consultants will recommend a set of changes to out zoning code, and perhaps the zoning map, that will designate what is permitted to be developed. We on the Planning and Zoning Commission will then discuss the recommended zoning changes, and modify them or not, then approve the changes.
My vision for the building code changes is that there will be a great emphasis on design, that the form of the building is regulated at least as much as the use, and that we have buildings constructed along the waterfront that are consistent with the architecture of our city – especially our downtown. So whether the building houses a place to get a glass of wine, or ice cream, or a boat rental, that their architecture is consistent with Middletown and appropriate for the setting.
In terms of usage along the waterfront, I’d like to see a space for residents to all walk and enjoy the river, enjoy the natural history, the beauty, the wildlife. I’d also like to see some commercial development there. I’m envisioning a craft brewery, maybe a bicycle rental place and kayak rental, ice cream shops, maybe a place for brunch along the river.
There may be a small place that sells locally made candles, those kinds of small, local businesses. I think it’s important also to have housing, and the reason is to have eyes on the river and provide a customer base for the shops, and to create a sense of life on the river that brings people in. My metric for success will be seeing baby strollers there. Then we know it’s safe and enjoyable for parents to bring their children there.