EAST LYME – Local attorney Dan Cunningham said he’s running for first selectman to ensure residents have their voices heard in Town Hall, and believes his party affiliation can help East Lyme secure more funding from Hartford.
If elected, Cunningham told CT Examiner he also would work to hold developers more accountable to the projects they present to the public, and to guide developers toward what East Lyme residents want.
Serving his third term on the Board of Selectmen, Cunningham is one of two current selectmen running to replace First Selectman Kevin Seery, who is stepping down after one term. Cunningham is facing Republican candidate Anne Santoro and hopes to be the first Democrat to hold the town’s top position since 2007.
He acknowledged that Seery inherited some problems — a major one being the land that voters recently approved the town to buy as open space — but Cunningham said there’s also a perception that decisions are being made behind the scene.
For example, he said, a proposal to tear down popular Café SoL on Main Street to build a three-story mixed-use building “snuck up on people” and left them feeling like they weren’t part of the process. He said that’s not Seery’s fault, but that the town can do better at informing people about what decisions are being made.
“There’s notices published in the newspaper and on the bulletin board in Town Hall, but a lot of time people don’t read those,” Cunningham said. “We satisfy the legal notice requirements, but what’s an actual notice for people so they really know what’s going on and they can get involved?”
Cunningham suggested that East Lyme pay for campaign-style lawn signs around town to let people know about major projects.
“I think that’s essential, because you always hear these things of, ‘We didn’t know, and there’s something going on behind the scenes and someone’s getting paid off,’” Cunningham said. “I’m not aware of anybody ever getting paid off for something that’s been built. But there’s this perception, and we’re in a culture where people love to think there’s a conspiracy, so we have to do the best we can to eradicate that.”
Cunningham said the key role of the first selectman is handling the day-to-day administration of the town. Beyond that, he added, it’s publicity and making sure East Lyme is shown in a positive light. As a lawyer, Cunningham said he has plenty of experience selling a story and advocating for people.
If elected, Cunningham said one of the first things he’d do is examine the budget and work with the finance director on the budget review process before deliberations start early next year. He advocated spending less time on small line items and more time on the “meat and potatoes” of the budget.
“There’s only so much time that we can look at this budget. Let’s spend our time looking at the areas where we can make suggestions that will hopefully reduce the impact on the taxpayer,” he said.
Cunningham also noted the town will need to determine the best way forward with its fire departments, as balancing the interests of paid and volunteer firefighters has proven difficult amid consolidation discussions. The selectman said fire and ambulance services are in high demand in town, and that East Lyme needs to be fairly compensated by the state for services to the York Correctional Institution.
Cunningham also expressed concern for the health of the Niantic River, particularly the shellfish beds. The issue will require regional cooperation, he said, as the river is affected not only by East Lyme but upstream in Salem, where Cunningham said farm fertilizers wash into the river and cause algae growth.
“If we can encourage upstream towns, especially Salem, to try and somehow control that or encourage farmers to do things in a little bit different way that reduces some of that flow into the Niantic River, that would improve its vitality,” he said.
Protecting the watershed from development is also a priority, he said, which could be solved in part by the town buying land trust properties. Cunningham said East Lyme should try buying at least some properties near the river for preservation purposes. Though the effort is expensive, Cunningham said he’s hopeful that being the first Democrat elected to run the town in years will give him some pull in Hartford.
“Maybe they see me and say, ‘Wow this guy is a Democrat who won after 15 years of Republican first selectmen, maybe he’s got something going on,’ and listen to me,” he said.
As far as new housing developments, Cunningham said he understands residents want fewer projects, but that those decisions are primarily made by the Planning and Zoning departments and land use office in Town Hall.
“I can’t go down to the Zoning Department and say, ‘I want you to do this or not do that,’” Cunningham said. “I don’t have the authority, and it’s inappropriate. But what’s appropriate is collaborating with them and developers and finding a way to understand what the residents of East Lyme want and what we can legally do.”
East Lyme is subject to the state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g, which allows developers to sidestep most local zoning rules if they want to build a housing development with income restricted “affordable” units.
Cunningham said East Lyme should look into a moratorium, which would put the statute on hold while the town examines ways to create more affordable housing and take a deeper look at its zoning regulations. He added that the town should avoid making “knee-jerk” reactions and changing zoning rules in response to a development people don’t like.
“I think there’s a failure in logic that if you can control mixed-use, somehow that’s going to solve the problem of keeping a charming Main Street,” Cunningham said. “We all want a charming Main Street, but we have this problem of finding affordable places for people to live, and one of the successful strategies is to allow mixed-use zoning.”
If developers and the town are serious about affordable housing, he said they should build it where there are jobs and infrastructure, not in places where people have to drive 20 minutes to the grocery store. That also means shifting the culture in the land use office and holding developers accountable to the design concepts they promised the public, Cunningham added.
“We really do need to provide affordable housing in a way that’s palatable to people in town, and isn’t seen as an eyesore stuck somewhere that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “… Instead of being adversarial, be collaborative with the developers in a way that solves the problem without us having to go out and buy every piece of open space.”