OLD SAYBROOK — As First Selectman Carl Fortuna campaigns for his seventh term in office, the unopposed Republican recently outlined what he’d like to see accomplished in town over the next two years regarding affordable housing, economic development and policing.
Fortuna told CT Examiner he wants to allocate the remaining $1.1 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to large projects, including affordable housing developments on Mariner’s Way — the eastern part of Route 1.
In July, the town hired Camoin Associates to develop a new strategic plan for the area. Fortuna said he hopes to partner with a developer and ask the state Department of Housing to match money that Old Saybrook sets aside for affordable housing with a grant.
“We are not taking any property. I want to be clear. This is not about taking property. It’s not about closing businesses. It’s about spurring good economic activity out there,” Fortuna said. “It is in many ways a gateway to our town, and we’d like to see it look more like an attractive gateway.”
He noted that much of the area is in the 100-year flood zone, and that the coronavirus relief funds could go toward making the area flood compliant.
Fortuna also proposed setting aside relief funds to reconfigure Town Park and redo the fields, a project he estimates could cost up to $3 million.
“We would love to leverage some of those dollars to really make an impact, as opposed to nickel-and-diming the money away $30,000 at a time,” he said.
Fortuna acknowledged he doesn’t enjoy the high-profile incidents involving the Old Saybrook Police Department.
“I feel as if we’re in the spotlight a little bit too much,” he said.
Despite the multiple lawsuits that have been brought against the Old Saybrook Police Department in the last two years, Fortuna said the town’s insurer, CRMA, told him the claims had not reached an uncommonly high amount.
“Old Saybrook police claims are not really that much outside the norm when you look at municipal police departments either in frequency or amount of dollars. They just seem to be more high profile,” said Fortuna, who added that the town’s insurance has remained fairly flat.
In August, Chief Michael Spera also proposed addressing the department’s chronic staffing shortage with hiring bonuses, salary increases and improvements to pension and benefits.
But Fortuna said before the town began making changes to the salary and pension systems, they needed to figure out what was causing the turnover.
“If we’re going to invest what could be hundreds of thousands of dollars, I think it’s appropriate that we make sure that the money is going to solve the problem,” he said.
Fortuna said he planned to present three proposals for consultants who could conduct an organization and climate study on the police department. He said these studies could include interviews with both current and former Old Saybrook police officers.
The town is looking at two major projects for development — a Whole Foods supermarket at the old Benny’s Plaza and the Mariner’s Way project.
Fortuna said economic development is good for the tax base and that he’s not concerned about the town being overdeveloped. He said Old Saybrook is 30 percent open space — above the state goal for towns — and that certain areas were blighted and in need of more development.
“The shoreline is not a high-growth area, and Connecticut is not a high-growth state. I don’t know that we have to be overly concerned about overdevelopment,” Fortuna said.
But he noted the town wanted to maintain a particular image for the people who visit.
The town’s Zoning Commission currently has a moratorium on drive-thrus, which was just extended to June 2024, and has been drafting new regulations for nearly a year. Fortuna said he anticipates the commission will eventually allow drive-thrus, but restricted to certain areas of town.
“We don’t want our Route 1 to look like a strip mall. We don’t. We want our Route 1 to be attractive,” Fortuna said. “We have higher standards, and I think if you put in eight drive-thrus, it’s going to look like a big strip mall.”
Residents of Chalker Beach have expressed concerns that the proposed Whole Foods would worsen the stormwater runoff they’ve been dealing with as a result of other development on Spencer Plains Road. But Fortuna told CT Examiner that the supermarket development “will only improve what pre-exists dramatically, both in volume and water quality.”
Regarding marijuana, Fortuna said he understood that people had concerns about where retail businesses would be located.
“I don’t want it in downtown, and it won’t be in downtown,” he said.
Marijuana retailer Fine Fettle plans to open a store on Boston Post Road in Old Saybrook, and another company, 5 Custom, LLC, is looking to open a facility near the Department of Motor Vehicles after the Zoning Commission approved regulations to allow micro-cultivation facilities in February.
Fortuna said he had visited retail marijuana stores in other towns and didn’t find the smell or the traffic overwhelming. He said he anticipates a spike in business when the facilities first open, and then for the rush to normalize.
“I think the Zoning Commission followed its regulations and there was no other alternative for them to make a decision,” Fortuna said.
Sewers and Trash
In the next two years, Fortuna said he anticipates a plan to address the town’s ongoing wastewater management challenges will come before the public — a project he described as “probably the town’s most expensive capital issuance ever.”
Fortuna noted that Old Saybrook is under a court order from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to address the wastewater in 700 homes, particularly low-lying homes near the beach.
According to Fortuna, the town has already overseen the installation of septic systems on 800 properties, but the remaining homes presented a challenge.
“It’s just a fact of the matter that areas like Chalker Beach that are low-lying cannot have a functioning septic system,” Fortuna said. “They have standing water for days, and it’s not because we have bad drainage systems in our cell. There are improvements that the town can make down there, but the major improvements down there are to remove the wastewater that people generate.”
He said the town has sent a plan to DEEP for approval, but it would also need to go before the public.
“This town will either solve its problems locally or we’ll have to retrace our steps, and we don’t have much time to do that because we’re under a court order to fix it,” Fortuna said.
He estimated the cost would be above $10 million, although some of it would be paid from the clean water fund. The town will be responsible for 25 percent of the cost, the homeowner will pay half, and the rest will come from a grant.
Fortuna said the town has also been investing in food scrap recycling bins for kitchen countertops, using the money from nips. The town is selling the bins to residents at half-price and paying a company to haul away the scraps twice a week.
“The heavier your garbage is, the higher the expenses for tipping fees. So it’s a cost savings to the town if you remove your food scraps,” Fortuna said.
He said this is part of a larger effort to encourage recycling, particularly in light of the waste crisis in Connecticut following the closure of the waste-to-energy facility MIRA.
“The Holy Grail is food. And until you make it super, super easy for people to the point where they can put it in the garbage can and it goes away within two days on their curbside, I don’t think you’ll ever get there unless you do that,” he said.