EAST HADDAM – Given the long and intense debate over the fate of the downtown village, it was no surprise that a town meeting to choose the 10-member committee that will guide its future featured a dose of controversy.
The meeting last week drew 80 residents to Town Hall, who in the end overwhelmingly approved the nominees for the newly-created East Haddam Redevelopment Agency that were chosen by the Board of Selectmen.
The impetus for creating the agency is a local architect’s proposal for a $50 million, 94,000 square-foot “Swing Bridge Landing” development of shops, restaurants and apartments on the compact, 2.75-acre site overlooking the Connecticut River and directly across Main Street from the Goodspeed Opera House.
The area is now mostly occupied by vacant former municipal buildings including the former Town Hall and public works garage – meaning no property taxes are generated from it in a town with little commercial development.
Before the 75-5 vote, some residents criticized the process as not providing enough information on the proposed members, and not allowing a vote on them individually as opposed to as a group.
“What is a problem is that for many of these people I don’t know them and there was no information about the people who are going to be here,” said Hemlock Valley Road resident Amalia Shaltiel. “We should know who the people we are voting on are.”
Shaltiel is a leader of the East Haddam Village Alliance citizen’s group, whose Facebook page describes its mission as an effort “to work together to create a viable East Haddam Village that preserves our interests and collective vision of our town center.”
The group has distributed “Save the Village” lawn signs to residents that are visible around town.
Former First Selectman Rob Smith agreed with her, and said the town’s attorney has erroneously advised the selectmen that the members had to be voted on as a block.
He also objected to the committee being composed of ten members, which he said presents the potential for tie votes, and that no public hearing had been held on the matter.
“I’m fully in favor of the redevelopment agency,” said Smith, who expressed reservations about the proposed transformative commercial project while in the office he decided to not run for again last fall. “Unfortunately, these issues will now taint the creation of East Haddam’s Redevelopment Agency.”
As far as the nominees for the board, Smith said: “Logically, if they’re all voted down as a block there’s no way to know what the issue or issues are with the list of members.”
He asked that such a vote be held, and on “secret” paper ballots.
Town Clerk Debra Denette, moderator of the meeting, said state statutes regarding municipal redevelopment agencies mandate that town meetings do not allow such individual votes.
“In a town meeting you vote it up or down,” she said. “You don’t amend – you don’t change.”
A subsequent motion for a secret ballot was defeated 67-13.
The debate prompted Smith’s successor and a proponent of the project, First Selectman Irene Haines, to step to the microphone.
“What we tried to do with this whole list of people is bring in some real amazing talent to help us as a town,” she said. “I think we have a really great group of people and I think they are going to do great by our town and I’m so looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”
Haines then provided more insight into why each of the ten nominees were selected out of the 16 who applied.
Jim Curtin, who has owned an excavation and construction business in town for decades and is vice-chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, is a “huge construction guru” who also served on the Village Revitalization Committee, which was replaced by the redevelopment agency when residents approved its formation this spring.
Jackie Nowell is a longtime Realtor “who knows commercial realty as well as residential realty” and who sold Haines a home.
Gary Laskowski is “a venture capitalist and financial wizard who has worked with a lot of companies on how to grow them and nurture them.”
Caitlin Taylor is an architect with “an amazing array of ideas out of the box” who has extensive expertise and experience in “green” technology and has “worked with sustainable communities all over the world.”
John Cotter is a retired businessman “with a lot of good business sense and has run a lot of companies.”
Melanie Kolek, another previous member of the defunct revitalization committee, is a lawyer with “all kinds of great sense” who as a mother of young children will “be here forever and really cares about the town.”
William DiCristofaro is former town board of finance chairman who has “a real good knowledge of how our town works, what our town finances look like.”
Andrew Lord is chairman of the town Water Pollution Control Authority who has “a lot of good business sense.”
Thomas Sevigny “has done this kind of work for other towns” and has expertise in broadband technology.
Randy Dill is the longtime chairman of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission who also served on the village revitalization committee and is “another person we wanted to get in continuity.”
Project on Hold
The ambitious Swing Bridge Landing project was proposed in 2020 by Jeff Riley, a town resident and Centerbrook architect who says he has lined up a group of investors to back him.
A referendum vote was tentatively scheduled last December on whether the town should negotiate to sell the property to Riley for $450,000, given the additional nearly $1 million in demolition and remediation that the site would require.
But the vote was postponed indefinitely after a joint meeting of the boards of Selectmen and Finance, where many officials and residents voiced concerns about the scope and traffic impact of the project and whether the town had enough solid information about a number of associated issues.
That was followed by a townwide vote earlier this year to form the revitalization committee to help steer development of the village, whether or not via Riley’s project.
Riley has told CT Examiner that he supports creation of the committee, and that the project was on hold pending the outcome of a potential referendum on sale of the site to him.
He did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.