In Bethel, the November municipal election is featuring a rematch of the 2013 First Selectman race. Democratic incumbent Matt Knickerbocker was first elected in 2009. Will Duff is the Republican candidate. He was the candidate two years ago as well. He is a Board of Education member, a town Constable and was a Selectman. He also served on the board now known as the Board of Assessment Appeals.
A bridge reconstruction project was an issue in the last municipal election and it looks like a different bridge reconstruction project in Bethel could be a point of contention. Last time around it was the Walnut Hill Road Bridge.
Knickerbocker is reassuring residents that the road will not close when the Plumtrees Bridge project is being done. When the project is completed, after about two years, the intersection will be realigned. He says when that work is done, there will be less of a tie-up at Whittlesey Drive and Walnut Hill Road. There will be pedestrian crossings and sidewalks. Bids were opened on Friday on that project. All of the needed permits and Army Corps of Engineers requirements have been secured or met.
Duff says if you are continuously pressing on state representatives on issues, such as bridge construction, then they can push those doing to work to get done on time and on budget. He would make the bridge project a priority. He says letting the contractors know that you’re there to help them if there’s a need, then you’ll know that the project is getting done.
Duff says taxes are too high. He wants to expand the commercial base to alleviate that burden. He says the tax rate is hindering economic growth. He says the town is spending too much, and hiring too many town employees. He says the town is at the limit on spending.
Knickerbocker says there’s a lot of legal red tape and a steep learning curve, so no project or initiative moves quickly. He says one of the things he is most proud of is not visible. He notes that when he came into office, the town was on the verge of being downgraded from AAa, one step below the best bond rating, to negative watch. He says the General Fund has been improved in the last several years and the bond rating has been reaffirmed twice to a AAA rating. He says it’s going to pay dividends long into the future and save millions of dollars in interest rates when something needs to be fixed, renovated or fixed.
As for taxes, Knickerbocker says the mill rate is based on property values so when there’s a big change one way or the other, the mill rate changes. But he says they’ve heard from residents that they don’t want a tax increase. He’s proud that there was a nearly zero increase in the past year. He says some development in town put new revenue into the stream. He says labor agreements have been negotiated and the same looks likely next year.
Knickerbocker says developers have opened up something in the area of 100,00 square feet of new retail space in the Stony Hill neighborhood in the last several years.
Duff says there are a lot of issues when it comes to the roads. He would like to see a higher bar of excellence for town services like paving and plowing. He wants to find ways to get peak performance from town employees.
Knickerbocker says the Road Recovery Project was going to address almost 40-percent of the town’s worst roads, which were neglected for years. The plan originally called for a four-year project, but the Highway Department ran into bad weather and couldn’t meet the aggressive schedule that had been set. He is looking forward to completing the project. He says it’s involved milling the roads, redoing the drainage, and putting down new pavement. Knickerbocker says this project has repaved more miles of roads than the previous 12 years put together.
Transit Oriented Development is being looked at for the area of the Bethel Train Station. Duff says one way to draw in businesses would be to offer tax incentives. He says the empty storefronts on Greenwood Avenue could also benefit from tax breaks as a way to draw in new businesses. But he is concerned about overdevelopment. He says there seems to always be new condos being developed. He cited the property on Plumtrees Road where the old sand and gravel company was. Duff says the existing infrastructure is being burdened. He says it would strain the schools, police and fire, and other town resources. He would prefer to see more commercial development.
Knickerbocker says he supports the Bethel Forward effort to change zoning laws downtown to encourage the type of development that will help the downtown become a more vibrant retail district. He thinks the Planning and Zoning Commission is doing it the right way, getting as much participating as possible. He says they’re making sure there’s the right kind of development for the area. He says the downtown is no different than any other when it comes vacancies. Knickerbocker notes that 20 years ago it was possible for a family to run a retail shop from one of these small storefronts, but now it’s not economically viable because merchants can’t sell enough of one product to make a living. Knickerbocker says they also want to make sure that zoning regulation changes don’t inhibit growth in the current storefronts. He says there is some commercial development happening, but he would like to see some tangible incentives to attract new businesses to Bethel. He wants to expand Clarke Business Park.
There are several hot button planning and zoning issues in Bethel. One is the medical marijuana dispensary now operating in the Stony Hill section of town. With the state looking to add more dispensaries in Fairfield County, and several surrounding towns having moratoriums on such facilities, Duff was asked for his opinion on the matter. Duff says the buck stops with the First Selectman and he would have liked if there was more public input on such a facility locating in Bethel. Duff says if elected, he would provide some guidance to the volunteers who serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission as to the type of development that should be in town.
The Plan of Conservation and Development was developed in 2007, and the Planning and Zoning Commission is just now starting the process of coming up with a new one. Knickerbocker says it’s about a two year process and will help set specific goals of how many acres to preserve as open space. Knickerbocker says he’s proud of the town’s recent acquisitions, especially the 72-acre Franc property. He says the Hickok property is also one he’s proud to have protected from development. Both were purchased for below market rate because the owners wanted to protect the character of Bethel.
As for a proposed new police station, Duff says there are some benefits to the idea. He says that property is already owned by the town, and that’s a plus. As long as it meets the needs of the Police Department, he will support it. But he says Bethel has a history of going into a project and then cutting back to meet a budgetary need. If aspects of the facility are taken out and it won’t meet that need, he questioned why even build it at all. He says the current facility was antiquated the minute police put the key in the door. There are no female restrooms and changing rooms, it was built on a flood plain and it’s not big enough. He understands there are some concerns on the location from residents, but it is centrally located and helps being virtually on the school campus.
There are a number of public safety issues that Knickerbocker wants to tackle. He’s concerned about neighborhoods that have become population centers disconnected from each other. He says now is the time to shift grant money to public safety and connecting neighborhoods with sidewalks. He wants students to be able to safely walk to school and for people who live near Meckauer Park to be able to get there safely. Right now there isn’t even a sidewalk at the park. Over the next 10 years he wants to see sidewalks on both sides of streets, especially by the schools, and more crosswalks.