EAST LYME — Dressed in a casual zip-neck pullover and jeans, First Selectman Mark Nickerson sat at the conference table in the town hall office he’s occupied for seven years, talking with CT Examiner about what’s next after he steps down in December.
“When I got here I had the biggest shoes to fill the history of our town because I was coming in with Paul Formica as my predecessor — what an amazing leader. What amazing work he and especially others have done prior. It’s great to list the things we accomplished, but we already had a vibrant town.”
Nickerson, who will step down in December, said his idea was to improve the town he calls “the gem of southeastern Connecticut” and leave it even better than he found it.
“People want to move here. Home values are secure here. Schools are magnificent here. Quality of life, whether it’s natural features, like our walking trails, and our beaches or man made features like the boardwalk and our parks. They’re amazing,” he said. “The neighborhoods — beach communities and the bedroom communities. We have a variety of housing stock. We have people moving into the 400 apartment units we built at Gateway and they love it here.”
Nickerson was elected to the Board of Selectmen in 2010 and appointed as First Selectman in 2014 to finish the two-year term of Paul Formica, who was newly elected to the State Senate. Voters elected Nickerson in 2015 and re-elected him in 2017 and 2019. He announced he would not run for another term on Nov. 27, 2020.
Seven years ago he asked Geico, where he’s worked for 31 years, whether he could step away from his job to take on the role of First Selectman.
“I took a virtual sabbatical from it. I hired managers, who will stay in, and I elevated some people from within to run my two operations, one here, one in Warwick, R.I.,” he said.
He said the company tells its leaders to “go out there and be the face of Geico in your community.” For each election, he sought permission from the company to run.
“I’ve had the blessing of Geico, but they never said, ‘Become the mayor of a town,’” he laughed.
Nickerson said he began in town government 22 years ago as an alternate on the Zoning Commission. By 2004 he was chair.
“All that land use stuff is very, very important. It’s an incredibly good foundation for this job because you need to know how things work. Once you’re in zoning, you also understand your sister commissions —planning, wetlands, POCD, affordable housing — and ultimately you give the final approval after consultation with them,” he said. “You’re putting up a building that’s going to last no less than 50 years — and is that good for the neighborhood? Is that good for the town?”
A proposed affordable housing development at Oswegatchie Hills was on the agenda of his first meeting as chair of the commission.
“Sen. Blumenthal showed up and tv cameras and the auditorium was filled with people. Oh, wow, lots of counsel with the council. And we got through it.”
In October this year, a Superior Court judge sent the Oswegatchie Hill application submitted by Glenn Russo of Landmark Development back to the East Lyme Zoning Commission, ruling that Russo is required to submit a final site plan to the commission in order to rezone the area to an affordable housing district.
Nickerson stood up and walked to a large map of East Lyme that was pinned to a wall of his office and pointed to the proposed site. He said the Oswegatchie Hills is an environmentally sensitive area, with the Niantic River at its base, and that access to water and sewer would be difficult, especially for a large apartment complex.
“There’s no legal connection [for water and sewer] up there, perhaps our only legal connection is to Waterford and it would require an intermunicipal agreement,” he said.
He questioned whether the state would allow the developer a connection onto a state road for the 840-unit plan.
Seated again at the table, Nickerson said that the 8-30g statute was flawed in “so many ways” but he particularly objected to the 30- or 40-year expiration of the covenants on the affordable units, while other types of higher-density housing do not qualify as affordable.
“It expires, so you’re always chasing that number of 10 percent. So, we could have put a ton on, but they’re leaving out the back door and you’re never done,” he said. “You can have a developer come in and put some cluster housing up, but it doesn’t qualify under affordable housing. We have tons of ‘affordable’ or lower than average housing stock here in East Lyme. It just doesn’t qualify under affordable housing.”
He said that Accessory Dwelling Units, approved under PA 21-29, were not a realistic solution to affordable housing, partly because the units don’t contribute to the 10 percent affordable number.
“We can let everybody in town redo their garage and make affordable housing stock, but it doesn’t count,” he said. “You’ve got to get rid of 8-30g if you want to go in this direction. You can’t have both.”
Concerning the commercial Costco property, Nickerson said it was hard to foresee whether the original masterplan — with a big box store anchoring an outdoor, upscale mall — would be followed due to changes brought on by the pandemic.
“Do people still shop at malls anymore? I don’t know,” he said. “Two years ago I would have said an office park, but we all work from home now. Or maybe there is a need for that kind of retail, maybe there will be a swing of the pendulum, who knows?
He said he could imagine banquet facilities or a conference center similar to the Mystic Marriott. He said there was a need for incubator and in-office space as Electric Boat grows. He had also heard talk of a sports facility with indoor soccer or a hockey rink, or an indoor water park.
Nickerson said East Lyme has four percent commercial or industrial land and is not zoned for more.
“It’s the last commercially developable, commercially zoned land, that is still developable in East Lyme,” he said. “We have a master plan and will that be adjusted because it’s been 25 years, should we look at it again? Maybe. Should we have a community discussion again? Yeah, maybe.”
The town currently has 20 percent protected open space, a number he was in favor of increasing.
“Is open space valuable? Absolutely. Should we preserve it? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and there’s proposals coming up and Oswegatchie Hills is the number one. We should preserve that, because that preserves the Niantic river. And there’s other spots too,” he said.
He said it was an option for the town to buy the Oswegatchie Hills property but the price was “very, very steep.”
“Maybe someday with the connection of federal money and state money and grants — maybe we can gather all that together and buy the land … By all means, protect our water, protect our aquifer.”
Nickerson defended the town’s 2019 purchase and ongoing renovation of the Honeywell Building for reuse as a police station, which is not yet finished. He said it was a better, cheaper solution than building new and addressed a longstanding problem that had been repeatedly pushed to the bottom of the town’s priority list.
“It’s been a very contentious, very polarizing subject,” he said, adding that two previous First Selectmen, Wayne Fraser and Beth Hogan, had tried to bring a proposal to fruition without success.
He said it was important to remember that when he was appointed First Selectman in 2014, an elementary school project had been proposed for $86 million.
“The superintendent and I both looked at each other and said, ‘That ain’t gonna pass.’”
Nickerson said that while he and the superintendent worked to reduce the school cost to $36 million, the police station continued to be housed in facilities designated as “temporary” 20 years ago.
He said that 16 years ago the estimate for a new police building was $12 to $14 million.
The original cost of buying and renovating the Honeywell building was $6 million, he said, but the Board of Selectman initially approved $5 million and told him to “come back for the other $1 million.”
The project is now at $7.1 million. Nickerson said there were escalating costs and “things we didn’t think we’d have to do,” like a $300,000 elevator and a new roof.
“When the opportunity to renovate this building came up, we looked at it and said, ‘You know, it’s half the price.’ And it’s still half the price. Does it require more maintenance than a new building? Absolutely, but I’m sure glad we weren’t building a brand new building during COVID and supply chain problems and all that’s gone on with building trades, as we know now we’d still be at it now,” he said.
He said that voters would not have accepted the cost of building a new police station.
“That’s why we went to renovations because proposing a $14 million dollar facility would have just been dead on arrival, even scaled down $10 or $12 million. So we thought we could get it with $6 million — that was our best advice from architects.”
Would he have done anything differently?
“You mean, do you have regrets? Would I have approached the police building differently? Yes, of course. We found things along the way that we wish we knew,” he said. “If the timing was better, we’d go for funding and would have really done a thorough [study], we’d get the architectural plan before we purchased the building, if we had that opportunity.
But also in municipal government we have such a tight budget, there’s no play money. There’s no contingency big enough to do that.”
But, he said, in the end, he had no regrets of the work he did and no regrets of what his administration left on the table for incoming First Selectman Kevin Seery.
When asked about his accomplishments while in office, Nickerson listed finishing the boardwalk, which was about half built when he came into office, the long-awaited bandshell project at McCooks and the success of Niantic Main Street.
The creation of Main Street Park, located at the end of Pennsylvania Ave., was a major step forward in 2018, he said.
“When I got into office, there was a gas station at the end of Pennsylvania Ave. We bought and cleaned up the property and it’s now a beautiful park with a window to Long Island Sound from our main street and not many towns in America can talk about that. It’s beautiful now,” he said. “It was identified as a key property 20 years prior to that in our Yale charrette that we had about how to improve downtown.”
He was also proud of the Miracle League field designed for special needs children, built on town-donated land behind Flanders School.
“It’s my boardwalk. All sorts of kids with all sorts of special needs — developmental, physical, mental — for the first time in their lives can join a team,” he said.
He said that hiring Police Chief Michael Finkelstein was a milestone that much-needed leadership to the town’s police force. At the time the town employed a resident state trooper system and had 22 officers.
“Again, this was talked about for decades, just like the police building, just like we got to renovate the schools — for decades. We needed to go independent, we needed our own force, but therefore you need jails and you need a chief — and we did it,” he said. “Let’s face it, policing is a controversial business now, it’s a more dangerous business, but it’s closely watched business now, too. They can’t mess up. We have in-car and body cameras now — that never would have happened without the police chief.”
Up until two years ago, the town also didn’t have a fully-manned third shift ambulance, he said.
“Our career fire guys are full timers that worked daylight hours and then you’d have volunteers and part timers who worked until midnight or the early morning. There was a block of time during the week when nobody was working,” he said. “Now we have full time firefighters 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
Nickerson said that COVID made in-person department head meetings —and his personal style of management — impossible.
“I’m a manager that needs to eyeball people, so I walk around this building twice a day. And then I go over to the community center, then I go to the police station, and there’s some fire departments — and we talk about what’s going on. You learn so much,” he said.
Nickerson said initially he kept working in town hall and then he worked from home, “running a town from a kitchen table.”
The town’s fire chiefs, police chief, public works director and every department head stepped up during COVID, Nickerson said, describing himself as an orchestra leader of an amazing symphony.
“All of those department heads were superheroes. We still got building permits out the door. We still had bills to pay, payroll to do. We got that out the door. We figured it out.”
He said that he was a believer in term limits and that now was a good time to leave because things were “great” in East Lyme.
“From my heart, I think people should serve and get and get out of the way. And we’ve accomplished so much in the last seven years and really, the first five years, because the last two years, nobody could do anything because of COVID — a lot of projects were halted.”
Nickerson said he is selling his house and moving to a condo community in town.
“I tell people I’m moving south — from Flanders to Niantic,” he laughed. “I don’t have to cut the grass anymore.”
He said he’ll continue to play drums in a couple of bands and was looking forward to coming home for dinner and doing all the things he hasn’t had a chance to do. He’s also anticipating to his return to Geico.
“I’m going actually, literally, through a training program again with Geico — what I would put my new agents through — I’m going through that bootcamp to kind of relearn and be able to be that mentor, that coach, to them. I have to get my hands on the keyboards again and be part of that programming and I’m looking forward to that.”
He said the town will continue without his leadership and he hoped people would remember him in a positive light.
“So, there’s a kind of a story, or a joke among the people I hang out with that if you say you’re humble, you’re not. You can’t use the ‘humility’ word in talking about yourself,” he said. “This town is great today because of the many leaders. We’ve had many, many people that have volunteered and done and made the town better and left it better than they found it — I hope people think that of me.”