Monday, August 18, 2008

City Hall’s Dream

Overview and commentary
by Karen and Paul Torop

The Army notified the Mayor in 2006 that they wanted to build a regional base for Army Reserve and National Guard training in Middletown. There was no announcement to the public until December 7, 2007 when an article appeared in the Hartford Courant about the plans to build the training facility in the south-east corner of the city, in what turned out to be a hayfield and woods on residential Freeman Road in Maromas. The Mayor and the City Development Director deny that in the interim the City directed the Army to the property on Freeman Road.

If the Freeman Road site had been used, the Army would have paid for sewers to be extended south on Saybrook Road to serve the new facility. This would have pleased the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce (strongly critical of the “NIMBY” concerns of Maromas residents) because the Chamber has for years been explicit about wanting commercial development -- e.g., big box stores --in the southern part of Saybrook Road, an area designated in the City Plan of Conservation and Development as a rural-residential. In the past a waste transfer station and condominiums had been proposed for lower Saybrook Road and eventually not approved by the Planning and Zoning Board. In the Dec, 7, 2007 Courant article, Mayor Guiliano was quoted as saying “The arrival of the center…gives us opportunities for public uses, and the Route 154 corridor (Saybrook Road) with the highway access, is a natural commercial artery, entering Middletown from the south.” City Planner William Warner said “A mixed-use development with retail and housing—that’s the future…. When you bring sewer service to an area, you basically open it up for development.”

The Army abandoned the proposed Freeman Road site because it turned out that there was an agreement between its owner, Northeast Utilities, and the State Department of Environmental Protection giving the DEP and environmental organizations the right of first refusal if the property were to be sold. Then the Army and the City looked for alternate sites for the base. The City Planner presented to the City Council an analysis of potential sites in the City. He recommended just two other sites, one on Saybrook Road and the other on River Road: both in Maromas.

City Hall has been explicit about its plans to bring more development to the part of Maromas that is along the Connecticut River, the watershed forest and meadows that local, regional, and national environmental groups have been working hard to protect and preserve. A letter to the Mayor from the City’s own Conservation Commission in March 2008 gives in detail the reasons for not building the Army base in any part of Maromas, and in particular on the River Road site. (See letter following this article.)

It was a big surprise when the Army came back to town and said that they had rejected as unbuildable the sites recommended by the Planning Director, as well as a third site on Pratt Whitney property. They said that they had chosen a property on Boardman Lane in an industrial-zoned area west of I-91.

Westfield residents understandably were furious. A base would certainly affect their quality of life and real estate values. There was and still is a strong protest. The Mayor and the City Planner took the opportunity to seem to support these residents. A resolution for the City Council was prepared with the help of the City Planner explaining why Boardman Lane would be unsuitable. It gratuitously concluded that the Army should reconsider the rejected sites in Maromas!!! In the public discussion at the recent meeting of the Common Council, it was pointed out that if the Council wanted to help the Westfield residents, they should avoid a resolution that would seem to pit one area of the city against another. A successful protest should be city-wide and based on principle. Citing the needs of our military, the Army was likely to dismiss a resolution that could be characterized as NIMBY whining. The Council seemed to have reached this conclusion themselves. They amended the proposed resolution, removing the part about redirecting the Army to sites in Maromas, and then passed it.

The Mayor and the Planning Director have continued to push for the Maromas sites. At least some of the Westfield residents have looked at this manipulation as support for themselves. The Army is returning to talk to City and State officials this Tuesday, August 19.

Karen and Paul Torop

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