Selectmen candidates outline challenges
The three candidates for first selectman and five for selectman concurred Tuesday night that proposed real estate developments in town and ensuing growth would be a key issue during the next two-year term, while citing an uncertain state economy, affordable housing and spending pressures as additional challenges.
“It starts by keeping Darien strong and vibrant,” Republican selectman candidate Kip Koons said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, who is seeking a fourth term, talked about how she has learned to work with people and groups with different perspectives and said managing the town’s budget to limit tax increases would be a foremost goal.
“Everything we do, great ideas must be balanced with our ability to pay for those things, and prioritize those things going forward,” Stevenson said.
“It is a 24/7 commitment and one that I take on willingly,” Stevenson said of the job. “One of my greatest accomplishments is to work with everyone regardless of their partisanship or their perspective.”
Rob Werner, a former Democrat running as an unaffiliated candidate for first selectman, said he would prioritize installing underground power lines and a high speed fiber optic network.
“Darien is really good but I look around and I see an uncertain world and see a state in decline and think Darien needs to be very great we need to be better than the rest of the state,” Werner said. “Right away I have a plan to underground our power lines, fight off state interference, and a plan to bring non-partisan leadership to this town.”
The eight candidates running for Board of Selectmen race were the focus at the League of Women Voter’s Candidate’s Night event at Darien Town Hall Tuesday night. It is the sole contested race for office on the ballot on Election Day Nov. 3. The unopposed candidates for other bodies for two spots on the Board of Education and three on the Board of Finance offered statements on their accomplishments.
In two consecutive forums, the five candidates for selectmen and the three for first selectman said that during the next two years they expect to play a role in ensuring major development proposals in Noroton Heights and the downtown were properly executed to address traffic, parking and other concerns.
Candidates also said town leaders would have to be vigilant to maintain local control over affordable housing and taxation which are threatened by a new state affordable housing statute and the recent reorganization of regional planning groups into councils of government.
The 8-30g statute allows developers to sidestep local zoning rules with proposals that set aside 30 percent of units rented to tenants who fall within the state’s income guidelines as low- and moderate income. Spencer McIlmurray, an unaffiliated candidate for selectman, said the town needs to organize with other towns with similar issues with the statute to advocate to maintain local control over land use and affordable housing. Since much of the land in town is already built out, large scale developments could exacerbate environmental problems such as flooding, McIlmurray said.
McIlmurray touted his business background as a vice president at Gartner Group and founding his own consulting firm Clarion Advisors as valuable skills to manage the town budget and anticipate infrastructure needs, state unfunded mandates and other concerns.
“On the operating side there are things we can look to do to get efficiencies … large-scale purchasing and those sorts of things,” McIlmurray said of the budget. “On the capital side there has to be more vetting of the things brought forward by the department heads instead of coming to the RTM at the eleventh hour and saying we need money now because. ”
The town is also expected to see three major real estate developments approved by land use officials in the next two years, two in Noroton Heights and one downtown, with the consensus being the projects have positive potential if done correctly.
Baywater Properties has proposed a major re-development of the downtown, which includes up to 20,000 square feet of new commercial space and a five-story office building. In Noroton Heights, Federal Realty has proposed 90 apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail space and 150 residential units, and the Palmer Family is looking to build 60 or more new residential units.
“I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity of the new development proposals but am concerned there will be associated infrastructure expenses and we don’t know what those infrastructure expenses will be,” Democratic selectman candidate Marc Thorne said. “One of the first things to do is to figure out what it we need to do to be ready to have have a bigger Darien.”
Chris Noe, a building contractor who is running for first selectman, said one of his initiatives would be to beef up school safety through infrastructure improvements and advocating for stronger penalties for possessing illegal guns near schools.
“The list of things to do is invariably long,” Noe said. “… I think the problem is not with guns, but with nuts with guns. But one cop at the high school with a pot-sniffing dog is not going to protect anybody.”
Noe said his experience as a builder and managing his own firm would help him manage infrastructure projects.
“Much of Darien is a construction project … so it will be easier for me to get that done than other people who don’t understand what a construction project is,” Noe said.
Werner and Stevenson agreed there was no question the state government would bring forward new regional taxing proposals through the reorganized councils of governments.
“I think Jayme’s done a good job with the COG … but I can tell you coming from Hartford regionalism has been a battle cry for more than 50 years,” Werner said. “… It is another way to bring another level of government, and more importantly another lay of taxation. I know she and I agree about Darien’s need for autonomy, but nevertheless I remain concerned.”
Stevenson, who was recently elected vice chair of Darien’s 18-member council of governments representing towns from Sherman to Greenwich, said she was concerned about defending Darien’s interests amid new forms of taxation, but that Darien needed to cooperate with its neighboring cities to counter the proposals.
“There is no question that the regional council structure will lead to regional government and regional taxation,” Stevenson said. “But 18 elected officials have a much more powerful voice in Hartford than one small town that is considered an ATM for state government more than anything else.”
With eight candidates running for five spots on the board, three of them unaffiliated, there is a possibility of a major reshuffling of the board’s partisan makeup.
The top vote-getter in the first selectman’s race will become the town’s top official, but the other four spots will be claimed by the four vote-getters from the remaining seven candidates for first selectman or selectman. No more than than three of the five members of the Board of Selectman can come from the same party.