GROTON – With an 8-1 majority on the Town Council, Groton Democrats are looking for voters to reaffirm their control of the town.
CT Examiner spoke with the slate of nine candidates about their priorities for Groton.
Is a lack of housing a problem in Groton, and what is the Town Council’s role in addressing it?
Portia Bordelon – New EB employees are not coming in with a 20-year engineering career salary, so developing affordable homes and affordable homeownership possibilities for them is important. But it extends beyond EB, we have a shortage of affordable housing.
They say Groton has met the 10% threshold [of affordable housing set by the state law 8-30g], but I feel like Groton has not calculated the amount of affordable housing accurately. The current count includes housing restricted to seniors, not accounting for families with children, and using 80 percent of the annual median income to define affordable rather than a more comprehensive 50 percent.
We need mixed-income, mixed-use development in all districts to widely distribute affordable housing, including options for homeownership, not just rentals. I do not believe in segregated housing. The model we have in Groton is all low-income housing is in one section of town. It’s one neighborhood, everybody knows you live in low-income. That’s not fair, and that model needs to change. Every section of town should have affordable housing.
The Town Council can get mixed-income housing through well-crafted [request for proposals]. When we go to RFP for apartments, we should have a plan and be putting in there that we want a certain percent to be considered affordable, or whatever we decide. The council has the right to say, we have a property, and we’re looking to hit everything – let’s get affordable housing, let’s get middle income and do a mixed-income development in an RFP process.
Rachael Franco – I think there is a lack of housing. I believe we could use some of our vacant property, such as vacant school properties, to add some housing. I believe Planning and Zoning plays a role in this as well. I think we need enhanced accessory dwelling unit policies that make it easier for people to build more accessory dwelling units.
Trailer parks are also potentially interesting because they are good for downsizing for seniors, and they are good for first time homebuyers and give people an opportunity to have homeownership at an affordable cost.
When we do go out for requests for proposals [for vacant properties], depending on what we get back, we could choose housing when we sell some of those properties. I think for accessory dwelling units we could talk to the Planning Department and come up with better ways to help residents when they want to do an accessory dwelling, because residents aren’t developers. Maybe they want to put one on their property, but they don’t understand how to go through the whole process.
Dan Gaiewski – Yes, and the reason I think that is we’re getting an influx of workers from Electric Boat. I met with Electric Boat workers during the campaign, and one of them told me they live an hour away because they can’t find an affordable place to live on their salary, which is a good salary.
One thing the council can do is currently we have four vacant, closed school properties. We have sold two of those schools, and those are currently being developed into housing. I would like to see the remaining schools put out in the RFP process and increase the housing supply.
Bruce Jones – Yes it is. We hear about it all the time because of the expansion of Electric Boat bringing so many people here, so there’s a big need there. We have a need for moderate housing and 55 plus housing so people have some place to go. You’ll hear from seniors who just aren’t able to afford living here or are right on the edge.
The council recently passed the property re-use policy. That was sort of on pause while it was being figured out, so now that allows us to move the vacant school properties out on the market. Now we’ve told [staff] they can start to put those out and we can get that going.
David McBride – There’s certainly a need for more housing. I think it’d be a wise idea for the council to develop a committee to really do a deep dive and meet regularly throughout the year to come up with a plan.
I think there’s two particular things that should be a part of that plan: establishing a rental assistance program and a first-time homebuyers program. That’s something that was brought forth in a study a few years ago, and it’s something that I think we need to put some money down.
Roscoe Merritt – It seems to be a lack of housing created by employment right now. The council’s role is more or less seeing if there’s availability of contractors and land available. It’s not really the point where you can tell somebody that owns private property what they’re gonna do with it just because you have a need.
Juliette Parker – Yes, we do. And as part of the [Thames Valley Council for Community Action] to the Town Council, we’ve had many discussions about it. It’s not just Groton, it’s New London County. It’s across the board.
Yes, Groton does have a housing shortage. That means development and finding a good place to have development for it. At the TVCCA, there’s a group of officials and community group members that are discussing this. It’s going to take everyone working together to figure out what’s best for our community.
Adam Puccino – I think it’s a problem. I think it’s a fixable problem. We just need to get more housing. We have EB that’s hiring thousands and thousands more people, we want them to live in Groton and help the tax base.
We have a lot of town properties that we need to get off town properties, and some of them could be used for housing, some could be used for business development, but having that property sitting on our town rolls is not doing us any good.
Getting those developed would be the short-term. We’re already seeing some success with the Colonel Ledyard School and the William Seely School. So that’ll help on our tax base. But housing is definitely a problem. It’s probably gonna be complicated, but I think we can do this. We’ll just have to jump through some hoops.
Jill Rusk – Yes, I do think housing is an issue in Groton. We definitely need more housing. We have 80 percent of our EB workforce who leaves Groton because we don’t have enough space for them. The Town Council’s role is to make sure we’re selling our surplus property, and making the best use of that property, whether it’s for housing or other uses. It’s also having good relationships with developers and making sure they come in and develop in ways that are appropriate for Groton.
Do you think the tension on the town council has gotten in the way of getting work done, and how can the council work through that?
Bordelon – For me, I’m doing the work of the people, and I’ve been bringing forth things that are concerns, like Branford Manor. I see that as a huge win. It was not fully supported at the time, but I stood firmly with the folks at Branford Manor. Now people have come around, but that caused tension at the time. Just like the data centers, just like Respler [being involved in the Mystic Oral School development]. These are some of the things where, two years ago I was not endorsed by the Democratic slate and I was having to primary. Sometimes it does cause tension, but in the end, what I’m elected to do is listen to the people.
Franco – I think at times it does interfere, but ultimately the work does get done, it just takes a lot longer.
I would like it to be better, I would like there to be civility and respect on the council. Of course I would, I would love that. I think I do my part where I don’t attack people. I don’t think it’s proper to attack staff. I don’t think it’s proper to attack councilors. We all have one vote and have to have respect for that and respect for our fellow councilors.
Gaiewski – The Democratic Town Council has a lot of legislative accomplishments. One of the most recent ones that I’m really proud of is stabilizing the fire district taxes. We have fire district that each have a tax rate on top of the town taxes. We used to give 18 percent of our PILOT funding to the fire districts, and now we give 50 percent to the fire districts, and that helps lower and stabilize fire district taxes.
It shows that we can set aside our differences, set aside the debates, and accomplish something good for the town. We’re a big tent party, and we have a diversity of opinions. Those opinions show in our meetings, and we work together to find a common set of solutions.
Jones – I think we’ve accomplished a lot this year, even though it does sometimes seem like there’s tension. We dealt with a lot of big issues that came up, like the Mystic Oral School, the data centers and Branford Manor. We dealt with open space, we’ve been having very good progress on town parks, like Sutton Park.
I think, even in normal discourse sometimes things get kind of tense, but we have been able to work through many of the major things we had to. I think we’ve done okay, it’s just sometimes it can be tense.
McBride – I think the council relations have improved recently, though there’s certainly room for more improvement. In my opinion, although everybody has their individual thoughts and opinions, the council needs to respect everyone’s opinions and put their individual desires aside and try to move in the same direction once a decision is made. I think we need to look at the greater good of Groton and not individual self-interest.
Merritt – Unless I’m directly involved, I’m not at every meeting so I wouldn’t know how they can work it out. That’s a personal issue between individuals, and they have to address that before they can move on in a group effort.
Parker – Can there be tensions? Yes. There are some very serious topics that people are concerned about and are fighting for. Everyone has certain things that are important to them, for the community. Sometimes do we get in our own way? Yes, we can. I’ll be honest. But I’m hoping we can do better and figure out the best way of being respectful to each other as well as to the community.
Puccino – It does get in the way. We have nine individuals on the Town Council right now, and we should have a body with nine within it. They’re not as cohesive as they could be, and when there are votes that aren’t 9-0, it causes tension. And it shouldn’t cause tension, because ultimately the Town Council meetings are business meetings and budget meetings. There’s no place for personal attitudes and personally being offended by things.
This is a business meeting, this is to get the business of the town done. The residents don’t care if your feelings were hurt on Tuesday at 5 o’clock. Nobody cares about that. Get the business of the town done, and that’s what I’m about. I’m not going to dwell on things that happened in the past. I’ll make sure I understand them so we don’t make the same mistakes, but I’m not going to dwell on it. We need to move forward, there’s plenty of room forward.
Rusk – Unfortunately, yes, I think it has gotten in the way. And I think I have set an example in the RTM of allowing people to speak, but speaking appropriately and not being disrespectful to other people. I think as long as we can be respectful, we can get things done.
What do you think are the biggest challenges the town council will have to address in the coming years?
Bordelon – Sea level rise. Coastal resiliency and sustainability actions and plans. Affordable housing. Community-rooted economic development. Sports fields at the high school, we’re not even ADA compliant there. Our bleachers, bathrooms, we need infrastructure updates at the high school to support the needs of the families and the students.
Franco – I think one of the biggest challenges is getting those empty school properties back on the tax rolls. We have a policy and we should start. I have heard for over a decade this is something the community wants. We’ve got two of them worked on to become housing, and I think we need to take care of the remaining ones.
I also think there’s challenges with people struggling with inflation in our community, and there should be ways to help them.
Gaiewski – Being a coastal community, the impact of climate change and rising sea levels is a big concern. We have allocated some money to building a sea wall in Groton City to help address flooding, but I do have concerns about increased flooding.
We have a climate hazard mitigation plan, so it will be important to see the implementation of that plan through so we are prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change and the flooding and potential infrastructure challenges that come with that.
Jones – Resiliency will be an issue. We have a new resiliency manager and she was able to get a grant to put together a plan. The advantage of a plan is that once you have one you’re open for grant money. So it’s certainly an area we’re conscious about, and I’m excited to see what they’re going to come up with.
The parking issue in downtown Mystic, we have a plan there but haven’t implemented anything yet. That’s certainly something we hear about.
It’s trying to have a good balance between development and open space. I’m a big open space person, but I want to have a good balance of bringing in new housing and new businesses.
McBride – Selling the town-owned properties, the parking situation in downtown Mystic, and economic growth throughout the town.
If you look at the town over the last 7-8 years, the town’s grand list has actually decreased. I think that’s a concern because what is happening with the additional cost of government – just with inflation and salary increases – is going to increase taxes.
I’m also a proponent of developing a stormwater authority, which could assist the town in getting funding to move forward with coastal resiliency plans that have been discussed. I also think a non-lapsing fund for the Board of Ed is something that’s worked in other municipalities to encourage saving. Now any excess funds are put in the town’s general fund, but if you made it so that it could go back to the schools at a later date it would encourage saving.
I also think we need to look long term on capital projects, and think about how decisions will affect the mill rate in 5-10 years.
Merritt – There’s a lot of challenges out there. Everybody will say that right now it’s housing, but I say that’s because of the influx of employment. You just have to meet the challenges day by day.
Parker – Besides the housing issue, probably parking and having businesses that want to stay, and helping young people stay.. It’s not just affordable housing, it’s across the board. There’s food insecurity, it’s everything, so people are looking for assistance. We have to look at everything as a whole.
We have EB and that’s wonderful, but not everyone is going to want to get into the manufacturing aspect. We have to have different types of jobs. Growing up here, there were so many different businesses, and we’ve lost a lot. We had different things for different people to work at. I don’t want to say we’re becoming a desert, but it feels like a desert.
Again, this isn’t just Groton, it’s across the board. I’ve been watching not only here, but in New London, people are moving to different areas. I’m wondering if it has to do with taxes. It would be interesting to find out what the bottom line is for everyone and why they don’t want to stay.
Puccino – We need to get rid of the town properties, and there’s that [draft policy for property re-use] that’s going around to change how the town sells property. That’s a big wrench in the works. It’s going to slow things down and put roadblocks in the way. Developers will just look over to Stonington and say, ‘They’re easy to deal with, let’s take our money over there.’ And we’re left high and dry. We need to make it easier for developers to come in this town and develop.
Another huge thing is the parking situation in downtown Mystic. It’s a nightmare. I don’t know how to fix it. A lot of residents in the area have talked to the Town Council, and there’s no easy fix. But I want to ask the questions and see what we can do. I need to have, in my mind as a resident, a definitive answer of what we can or can’t do. I can guarantee you’re not going to make everybody happy. But I was always told, to eat an elephant, take it one bite at a time. I think we can do that.
Rusk – One of the biggest issues I see is that 40 percent of our population can’t afford to sustain their basic needs. I think we need to be very fiscally responsible to make sure we are bringing in more revenue, and be very careful about when we raise taxes.
I think it’s important that we continue to support our police departments. My background is in social services, and I think that’s very important. We need to take care of everyone in our community in all areas.