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Former New Fairfield First Selectman seeks to unseat incumbent, take job back

A former First Selectman is looking to take the office back in New Fairfield. Democratic incumbent Pat Del Monaco is seeking reelection, but faces a challenge from Republican John Hodge.

Hodge was in office for 8 years. During that time, he touted completion of 20 capital works projects including the schools, the senior center and the emergency communications system. He believes that experience in project management best suits the town now that two school building projects have been approved.

One of the top priorities for Del Monaco is to continue working on economic development issues. She says there is some empty commercial space to fill so the recently installed Economic Development Commission will work to identify business that can thrive in New Fairfield. The town was one of the few municipalities without such a commission until recently. Once they figure out the type of business residents would patronize, Del Monaco says they can market the town to attract those businesses. She says there are some unique challenges, including that there is no sewer or natural gas available. She notes that will limit the type of business, and it should be the right match for the character of town.

Hodge also wants to bring business back to the center of town. Hodge says the storefronts in the center of town were mostly occupied, but they have since moved elsewhere. He says flowerbeds and gardens don’t look as nice as they used to and those are the kinds of things that draw businesses to the area.

Del Monaco says one of the priorities over the last two years has been to pay closer attention to infrastructure and do preventative maintenance. That has included tree trimming and roadside mowing. Del Monaco says that will help take care of saplings before they become a problem in strong storms like the recent macroburst. She added that there is a robust tree management program in place to do tree trimming and cutting.

Hodge says Eversource has been working hard trimming trees around town to prevent damage seen in previous storms, like the May 2018 marcoburst. But he says the soil conditions, rock and ledge, make the tree roots shallow. Hodge says the town should look at town properties to make sure there are no trees that could endanger public safety.

One issue recently confronting the town was the proliferation of homeowners putting their properties on AirBnB for short-term rentals. Hodge says there needs to be some sort of balance, maybe requiring a minimum number of nights so that a resident can supplement their income, but bring in a different kind of renter.

Del Monaco says the Zoning Commission has found a good balance when it comes to the rise of short-term rentals. She says they are working within currently regulations to make sure lakeside communities aren’t disrupted by these AirBnBs.

When it comes to water quality, Del Monaco says the sterile grass carp program has been very successful in controlling the invasive Eurasian Water Milfoil.  That coupled with the drawdowns, have helped make progress. She says there are a lot of question marks about what role the weather has played in water quality. Del Monaco says there is a new ordinance now in place which would require a town vote for use of herbicides in a body of water, unless in case of emergency. Then the Health Director can order that but there’s been such a decrease that she doesn’t foresee that emergency arising.

On protecting the waters of Candlewood Lake and Squantz Pond, Hodge says he’s concerned that there’s no roadmap to move forward. He notes that the Candlewood Lake Authority includes some talented people, who have the lake’s best interest in heart, but there are no lake scientists on the board. He would like to seethe town, working with CLA, hire someone with success elsewhere to draw up a lake management plan. He was in favor of a past proposal to supplement the sterile grass carp program with some herbicide management to control Eurasian Water Milfoil. The plan was ultimately not approved. Hodge is also concerned with zebra mussels and blue green algae in the water.

The Town of New Fairfield and the State of Connecticut have been in a stalemate over allowing walk-ins at state parks. Hodge says that makes sense for other parks, but not Squantz where there is no public transportation. He notes that the 250-car limit has mostly worked to control the crowds. The change was put in place after about a dozen drowning deaths over a decade. The calculation was made based on how well the lifeguards could properly observe the crowd. The protected swim area is roped off, but when it’s crowded, people will swim outside the area. The state overhauled the beach to make a gradual decline into the pond. The topography outside of the protected swim area is still unknown. Hodge says someone may be a good swimmer in a pool, but when the ground drops off beneath them, they get in over their heads and panic. He agreed with a carve out for Squantz Pond on where people can swim and how many cars can park, now he’d like to see an exception banning walk-ins.

Del Monaco continues to meet with state officials to improve safety in and around the park. She says it only makes senses that when the park is closed to new cars, that it be closed to new visitors. Once the limit is reached, she wants it adhered to.  If the state regulatory authority is unwilling or unable to make a carve-out for New Fairfield, Del Monaco says there are other avenues to try to keep everyone safe. She met the State Police Commissioner last month about having more Troopers near the entrance to the park to move cars along. She notes that the Commissioner will be at the April planning meeting.

The two school projects are the big capital projects on the horizon. Del Monaco says they will look to manage it very carefully. She says the condition of the schools warranted action because of longstanding issues.

Hodge says there are always infrastructure needs that have to be done in a town. He didn’t oppose the school projects, which were just approved by residents, noting that it is time for the High School to be renovated. But Hodge says he disagreed with the rush to go out and bulldoze the schools, constructing two new ones from scratch. He noted that when he was in office the last time, the town renovated Meeting House Hill School as new. It was about 50 years old at the time, but the project is now 10 years old. He believes the High School could be renovated as new, saving $20 million to $25 million dollars. Hodge says the school project bonding means other things will go by the wayside. He believes that project is going to increase town taxes about 9-percent.

In terms of increasing walkability and providing more passive recreational opportunities, Del Monaco says she continues to work with Danbury about creating a Marjorie Reservoir walking and biking trail. She notes that the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, the regional planning agency for the area, should be starting a corridor study soon. The plan for the trail will link Danbury to
the center of New Fairfield. With the Governor’s so-called debt diet, Del Monaco says it’s more important than ever to try to reduce the town’s reliance on the state. She says New Fairfield is in the best financial shape that it’s ever been in.

Hodge says people are concerned about spending in town. He acknowledged that there have been low tax increases, but spending has gone up. Hodge says some of the expenses paid for through special funds, are now recurring. In 2 years, Hodge says spending has gone up $1.4 million, with $661,000 in payroll increases, before benefits.

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Dave Rinelli

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