FAIRFIELD – Town Democrats and Republicans agree that recent pedestrian deaths call for safer streets. But officials remain divided over an ordinance proposed by a first selectman candidate to address the issue.
Since 2020, four pedestrians have died in traffic accidents in Fairfield. Most recently, resident Meghan Raveis was hit and killed by an oncoming car while she was jogging on June 23. Bill Gerber, the Democratic candidate for first selectman and a member of the Representative Town Meeting, said his proposed town law will help to improve the safety of town streets.
“In too many areas of Fairfield, our streets are not safe enough to walk, bike or even drive on. They’re not up to the standards of a modern, forward-thinking municipality with so many children, seniors and parents now spending more time working from home,” Gerber said at the Monday RTM meeting.
Under the proposed Safe and Livable Streets Ordinance, Fairfield would create an annual list of priority projects, designate a town employee to coordinate and facilitate improvements and provide annual presentations on townwide crash statistics.
But while all RTM members agreed the town needs to improve its streets, many Republicans questioned whether Gerber’s ordinance is viable.
“Great idea. The end game could be good for all of us. Who wouldn’t want to drive around town with all this safety? It sounds fantastic,” said Republican Jeff Steele. “But let’s do it the right way.”
During a question-and-answer session, Steele and his fellow Republican members probed Gerber about the details of his proposal, which he first submitted to the group in July.
Unknown costs and missing input
Asked about the plan’s cost, Gerber said it is not possible to estimate the cost to the town because the prices of construction projects vary drastically. He said the total would depend on the annual priorities, but assured the group that the plan would not bankrupt the town.
Any cost to the town, he explained, would come with the benefit of decreased liability and improved safety.
“There’s also the offsetting costs of safety, liability, potentially death. I’m not sure how you would do those calculations,” Gerber said.
But Republican Karen McCormack pushed back on Gerber’s explanation, emphasizing the need to outline costs before granting approvals.
“I don’t think this body has ever approved of anything without knowing the cost,” McCormack said. “And we don’t use the standard of, ‘If it won’t bankrupt the town, then we can just rubber stamp it and approve it.’”
In addition to providing capital funding for priority projects in the town budget, the draft ordinance states that the designated town employee – the “Complete Streets Coordinator” – would be required to identify and pursue potential public and private funding sources, including grants.
Republican members also argued that the process feels rushed, and that Gerber needs to take additional time to gauge the appropriate stakeholders like town departments, officials and residents.
Gerber said he contacted the town attorney, the Police Commission and the town engineer, but has not yet reached out to the Public Works Department or First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick.
According to the RTM meeting calendar, the group is scheduled to vote on the ordinance at its meeting next month. But without input from Kupchick, Public Works and other town bodies, Steele questioned why the proposal is slated for a vote so soon.
Typically, Steele said, the RTM gives town employees and officials ample time to comment on and analyze proposals. Without that, he said, the ordinance is not yet “fully baked.”
“To do this in two months? To me, there’s a lot of thought that needs to go into this, a lot of research, a lot of data,” he said.
‘I think this is a no-brainer’
Meanwhile, RTM Democrats and residents attending the Monday meeting backed the proposal.
Democratic member Jill Vergara argued that the ordinance is not a new idea for the town. Rather, she said, it would codify the 2013 Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan and the 2018 Complete Streets Policy, both of which were endorsed by the Board of Selectmen and encourage the construction of sidewalks and enhanced traffic controls.
Vergara said the 2018 policy, which looked to improve town streets for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists, was nationally recognized but never implemented by the town.
“It put us on the map. We were spoken about nationwide, and then we just dropped the ball and we didn’t implement it,” Vergara said. “That’s why we need this.”
Democrat Dru Georgiadis said the ordinance would help residents and officials enact change, as proposals for new stop signs and crosswalks would first be vetted and improved by the appointed coordinator.
Georgiadis spoke to her own attempts at getting the town to build a fence around the Roger Sherman Elementary School playground. After some neighbors approached her with safety concerns, she said it took two years to find funds and move the request through the town bodies. While she has the time to work through the approval process, she said, many residents do not.
“I’m happy to have gotten it done for my district, but I have the time,” she said. It shouldn’t be haphazard. This needs to be in a safe streets ordinance.”
The seven residents who provided comments to the RTM were also in support of the ordinance, and shared their experiences with dangerous town roads and lengthy approval processes.
Thomas Corsillo, of Church Hill Road, said his neighborhood lacks a sidewalk along a busy road and is a “perfect example” of why Fairfield desperately needs the ordinance. Corsillo said he asked the town to make improvements, but was told he needed to start a petition to demonstrate support. His petition received about 250 signatures – proof, he said, that there is an appetite for roadway improvement in Fairfield.
But Corsillo said it is “ridiculous” that residents are required to petition for new sidewalks, and hopes the ordinance will change that process. He urged bipartisan support on the measure, adding that people need to be prioritized over vehicles.
“I think this is a no-brainer. I think it’s a common sense ordinance that should be passed with bipartisan support,” Corsillo said. “So again, I urge you all to say yes to this.”
On Tuesday, Gerber told CT Examiner he believed the residents’ input resonated with many of the RTM members and that he looked forward to working with his colleagues to pass the ordinance.
“The draft ordinance has significant support from the body, and I am committed to working with our members and the administration to make this proposal a reality and improve the safety of our streets for people of all ages and abilities,” he said.