East Haddam Aims for Dec. 14 Referendum on Village Redevelopment

EAST HADDAM – Aiming to hold a moved-up Dec. 14 referendum to decide the commercial fate of the riverfront downtown village, town officials and the would-be developer will engage in a series of meetings and negotiations this week that will determine if that time-crunched goal can be made.

The tentatively-scheduled referendum date comes nearly two years after local architect Jeff Riley proposed to transform the mostly-vacated municipal site into Swing Bridge Landing, an ambitious mix of commercial, retail and residential development adjacent to its namesake iconic span across the Connecticut River. 

Plans include approximately 94,000 square-feet of shops, restaurants and apartments, many housed in a replica of the mansion of William H. Goodspeed, who built the namesake Goodspeed Opera House directly across the road nearly 150 years ago. 

Terms disclosed so far show the town is asking $450,000 for the 2.7-acre site, which Riley says will need at least another $800,000 in remediation. 

Newly-elected First Selectman Irene Haines says the Dec. 14 date – a week earlier than one floated by the previous administration and that Riley opposed – is designed to allow greater accessibility to residents during the busy holiday season. 

“I think that’s what the big issue was,” with holding a date four days before Christmas, Haines said. “You’re going to get people leaving that week, or possibly that weekend before Christmas. I think that if we moved it back a week, even that would give us a lot more people available and ready to vote on it –one way or the other.”

Randy Dill, acting chairman of the East Haddam Village Revitalization Committee, agreed.

“If it’s too close to Christmas or too close to Thanksgiving you’re going to lose people,” he said.  That’s why we recommended it to be in between those holidays.”

Haines said the Dec. 14 date can only be achieved if several preliminary steps are accomplished this week.

A joint special meeting on the issue between the Board of Selectman and the Board of Finance is scheduled for Wednesday, at which they would finalize the language of the referendum question and vote whether to move forward with the process. 

Previous discussions among town officials indicated that the referendum would ask voters whether to authorize the town to enter into negotiations with Riley and his Centerbridge Group on the sale of the property.

But Riley and the town are still negotiating the details of the referendum question, she said, and if they cannot reach agreement by Tuesday, there will not be enough time for the two boards to review the proposed question for the planned Wednesday meeting. 

The compressed timeline is also needed in order to hold a town meeting tentatively scheduled for Dec. 1 at which the date of the referendum vote will be officially set.

“We still have a lot to resolve in the shortened window,” said Haines, who has expressed strong support for the project along with caution about its grand scale – a major point of public debate over the project’s viability and its potential impact on traffic and the overall ambiance of the historic village. 

But as the referendum vote perhaps draws close, a growing focus of the hotly-debated project other than its scope is whether the town should sell the land to Centerbridge or maintain ownership and lease it to them. 

Lawn signs opposing the deal have been seen around town, including one in Hadlyme that reads: “Village Not for Sale.” 

Riley could not be reached for comment. 

Meanwhile, Haines said that details of the referendum question being negotiated with Riley are in renewed flux. 

“The whole question is still up in the air,” she said, adding that if those negotiations and this week’s checklist don’t work out, she will still push for a vote to be held as quickly as possible. 

“If none of the above happens, we will steadfastly continue to get something to the town soon,” Haines said. “I think what’s most important is we get a clear and understandable referendum before the citizens.”

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