STONINGTON — Two years after First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough ran unopposed for reelection, she now faces three challengers for the town’s top seat.
The four candidates – Chesebrough, running on the Forward Party line, Republican Bryan Bentz, Democrat Laura Graham and unaffiliated candidate Michael Spellman – met for a debate Tuesday at the Stonington Administration Building to discuss the key issues facing the town, including housing availability and cost, aging sewer infrastructure and coastal resiliency issues caused by climate change.
The debate was organized by CT Examiner and moderated by deputy editor Cate Hewitt.
Below are candidates’ comments on three major topics discussed at the debate. A link to a video of the debate is available here (link has been updated).
“I’ve listened to the residents, and it is crystal clear that while Stonington needs more affordable housing, residents are against corporate giveaways,” Graham said.
Graham questioned why the developers behind Perkins Farm, which received a tax abatement for its first phase in 2018, weren’t pushed to include affordable units. She said the town also should have asked developers behind the proposed Campbell Grain project, for which voters rejected an abatement, to build a footbridge to Westerly.
“I think we would be available to do tax abatements, but it has to be for a very special project that really gives a lot back to our town,” Graham said.
Spellman, who was on the Board of Selectmen when Perkins Farm was proposed, defended the tax abatement for that project, saying it grew the grand list and brought a Hartford Healthcare facility to town.
But he agreed the Campbell Grain proposal was a “corporate giveaway” that had problems, didn’t fit the community and was marketed poorly.
Chesebrough noted the decision to allow or reject a tax abatement is up to residents in a referendum, not the first selectman. She said developers have approached her with ideas, and she offers reasons why it may or may not be feasible in town.
“If they come forward and say, ‘Well we still want to pursue that,’ that’s not our role to stop them,” Chesebrough said. “We tell them how they do it, and at the end of the day, it’s up to the residents.”
Bentz said tax abatements seem “inherently unfair” because other people are essentially paying taxes for the developer, but acknowledged there are cases where they’re needed.
“I’m for it in very limited circumstances — are we getting something that’s unique?” Bentz said. “Otherwise I think we have to be very, very careful about how we use it.”
Spellman said the state’s 8-30g statute, which requires every municipality to have 10 percent of its housing stock deed restricted as “affordable,” could create new problems for Stonington. He argued that affordable housing being built almost exclusively in the Pawcatuck section puts Stonington at risk of being split into two towns: The haves and have nots.
Stonington’s affordable housing stock currently sits at 6 percent, but the town has applied for a moratorium on new 8-30g applications.
To reach the 10 percent goal, Graham said, Stonington would need to build 20 100-unit buildings under 8-30g, with 30 percent of the units deed-restricted as affordable — not including any other housing built in town.
Developers with 8-30g projects will most likely go where there’s infrastructure in place and cheaper land available, Chesebrough said, which explains why a majority of affordable housing has been directed toward Pawcatuck instead of other villages.
“At this time, it does feel like a government intervention is needed and wanted to try and redirect investments in other parts of town,” Chesebrough said.
But Bentz said rent control won’t solve the housing problem.
“I would be for accessory dwelling units. I think it helps real affordability in terms of housing,” Bentz said. “I also think it’s good for families. If you have an aging grandmother and you want to keep her nearby, it’s a nice way to do it. Or a child starting out who may need assistance, I don’t see a downside to it.”
Graham said accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are a historic solution for affordable housing in Pawcatuck, allowing for multigenerational living arrangements.
“If you look at a lot of the houses built in the 1800s, this is not a new problem,” Graham said. “And those beautiful houses are now great for an elderly relative or a younger person, so it’s exactly the demographic we’re trying to cover here.”
Chesebrough said residents should be part of the discussion regarding ADUs.
“It’s not just a Stonington problem, it’s a problem everywhere in the state,” Chesebrough said. “I do feel optimistic that with all the right people in the room, it’s going to take time, there’s different views and we’re going to have to hear each other, but I believe we’re going to be in a much better place in the next few years.”
Chesebrough said when she took over as first selectman, there was a moratorium on building in Mystic because of a lack of sewer capacity. Since then, the town has diverted sewage from the Mystic plant to the Stonington Borough plant, and repaired leaks bringing excess water into the Mystic system, she noted.
Chesebrough said she has the “utmost confidence” in the Water Pollution Control Authority to outline a long-term sewer plan. She touted the town’s approval of a $10 million sewer bond to fund projects and said the potential for outside money, including a $700,000 grant for upgrades to a pump station.
Graham said Stonington will need federal or state grants to deal with rising sea levels and coastal concerns, sharing that Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz had reached out to her about working together on grants.
Spellman said the town needs a study on the sewer laterals to ensure it won’t have the same infiltration problems that put the Mystic plant over capacity. But the danger is that the study could show a problem that’s more expensive than Stonington’s entire bonding capacity, he said.
“At which point, we’re going to be going hat in hand up to Hartford, maybe Washington [D.C.], to get money to repair it,” Spellman said.
In the long term, Spellman said Stonington may have to consider a state-of-the-art central plant, and turning the three existing plants into pump stations. A long-term plan is crucial to protect people’s properties and the value of the grand list, he said.
“If we have anything go wrong with the sewer plants, you could knock a whole zero potentially off our grand list,” Spellman said. “That is something we absolutely have to protect.”
Bentz said the town may also need to consider regional solutions, including building a single plant with North Stonington. Past discussions with Groton, and talks about connecting North Stonington to the Pawcatuck plant haven’t gone anywhere, he added.
“But we’re talking about such a scale that we may need something like that,” Bentz said.
Watch the CT Examiner video of the Stonington first selectman candidates’ Oct. 24, 2023 debate here (link has been updated).
We apologize that the previous link to the video cut off at about an hour. We have updated the link with the full version.