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Petitioning candidate makes for 3-way race for Bethel First Selectman

Bethel Democratic incumbent First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker is seeking another term in office. He is in a three-way race with Republican Pat Rist and petitioning candidate Bill Ochs.

Rist has been a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission for 21 years, the past 10 as chairman. She runs the Bethel Historical Society. Their biggest program is taking all second graders on a tour of Bethel. The third grade teachers recently asked that the group run classes at the one room schoolhouse on Plumtrees Road, and now do so. Rist was chair of the Route 6 Study Commission, which developed the guide for development, and is also on the Board of the Chamber of Commerce.

Ochs is a WCSU grad was a Police Commissioner and is a softball, soccer and basketball coach.

Knickerbocker is looking forward to seeing through the two school renovation projects, currently underway. But he cautioned those projects will add to the debt load for another year. For the immediate future Knickerbocker is not proposing anything new and is planning for a status quo budget. He added that the town will look for savings, where possible, so there’s no shock from the school renovation costs.

The main issues for Ochs are to keep taxes under control, keep Bethel affordable, and controlling growth of multi-family housing. He also wants to keep the schools at their current high level. He wants to bring more businesses into Clarke Industrial Park to offset the taxes paid by residents. Ochs says Bethel has focused on building up residential communities in the last few years, but would have preferred those locations be developed as commercial. He notes that more residents means more congestion on the roads and more demand for services from fire, police and the schools.

Knickerbocker says it’s important to plan for the future though, including an expansion of Clarke Business Park. The park hasn’t been expanded since it was created some 25 to 30 years ago. Knickerbocker says that was in part due to insufficient water for fire protection, along with wetland and open space issues that had to be resolved. After construction of the Eureka Water Tank five years ago, Bethel secured a development grant from the state to create plans to extend Trowbridge Drive. Knickerbocker says 4 lots are ready for sale and there’s already interest. He notes that they are waiting to hear back from the state on another grant to pay for the infrastructure. Knickerbocker says commercial development is a win- win because it brings in tax revenue without putting a strain on services.

Rist believes the biggest change that needs to comes to Bethel is bringing down the tax rate. She touted the developments in the Big Y complex, Maplewood on Route 6 and Toll Brothers. Rist says those commercial developments have helped to hold the mill rate down, but there’s more that can be done. In talking with residents, Rist has heard that they don’t want their taxes to go up. She reiterated that the town has to look for economic development issues to grow the tax base and hold the mill rate level.

Ochs calls for more transparency and for more meetings to be held at a convenient time for residents to be part of town government.

Knickerbocker touted the solar farm, built at no cost to the town, but providing savings on energy bills. He added that there are on going discussions about putting solar on the two schools currently under construction. He noted that there’s a possibility of putting a microgrid on the school campus to power all five schools and the police station. He says that would also protect the senior housing complex nearby, Reynold’s Ridge.

Rist says the Parks and Rec Department has a consulting firm working on a plan for what can be done in Bethel. She says some of the school fields need work and a turf field recently came up. Part of the plan of conservation and development is to identify property that could be turned into green space. Rist would like to see a pocket park where the public can sit for a bit and lounge. She says the town doesn’t really have any right now, and that would be ideal.

On a long-term basis, Knickerbocker says the town should focus on recreational facilities. He says the fields are over scheduled. The Board of Selectmen recently completed a draft of a 10-year plan to improve the parks. Knickerbocker says Parloa Park could get an overhaul. It has a field, baseball diamond, basketball court and playground equipment. He says a consultant suggested that if a facility is used more by one particular age group, to really focus on that group. Basketball courts could be moved to a place that makes more sense, with older kids and young adults separate from younger kids. While there’s an upfront cost, Knickerbocker says a turf field will cost less to maintain in the log run and will allow more hours of playing time.

When it comes to infrastructure, the next big spending by Knickerbocker would be for the Fire Department. While they are volunteer organizations, taxpayers do providing funding for the building and their heavy equipment—trucks, turnout gear and breathing apparatus. The town only owns one ladder truck.

As for infrastructure work, Rist says the Fire Department recently mentioned needed a ladder truck. She wants to have research done on whether a brand new one is necessary, or if there are parts available to refurbish the current truck.

Ochs says the Fire Department needs a new ladder truck and says safety should be the main focus of the Board of Selectmen. He’d also like to see more recreation opportunities in town, like a turf field. But he says saving for these items will take time and called for a strategic plan to be put in place. Ochs says having that cushion will mean there are better services, taxes won’t go up and quality of life will improve.

Knickerbocker says the bridges have been reconstructed in the last 10 years and more than half of the roads have been rehabilitated. He says they’ll continue with the paving schedule. In terms of school funding, Knickerbocker says they’re always afraid that the state will cut the Education Cost Sharing funding. He says Bethel gets treated as a wealthy town, simply because the town is located in Fairfield County.  A long-term goal for Knickerbocker is to make the town budget sustainable and capable of paying for most things.

Rist says the Board of Ed is getting the schools are getting to the point where they need to be. She notes that some haven’t been rehabbed in a long time. Rist touted the schools reputations and the work done by Superintendent Christine Carver to raise their profiles. Rist was a literacy volunteer for several years, helping English Language Learners. She notes that it is more than just teaching language. Rist says they helped people with every day tasks like navigating the grocery store, using the HART bus system, understanding their bills and filling out paperwork.

Bethel has a growing enrollment in the schools. Ochs says the student population isn’t as big as it was in the 80s and 90s. He believes the school infrastructure will be sufficient when the Rockwell and Johnson projects are complete. But he says there are some students in the schools who aren’t residents of Bethel. He wants to come up with a better way to vet residency.

Knickerbocker says a feature of the Transit Oriented Development Plan is to lower the speed limit of Greenwood Avenue and make it more pedestrian friendly. But that requires moving the parking off the street. Knickerbocker says one of the biggest problems is a pedestrian stepping out from between parked cars or a parked driver opening their door along the narrow street. He says there are portable speed trackers and signs that collect data, which has been analyzed by officers. The Police Commission now has a roving targeted enforcement underway to crack down on speeders in those locations.

Rist would like to implement a ’20 is Plenty’ plan. The thought is that the speed limit should be 20 miles an hour along Greenwood Avenue. There are crosswalks, but she says drivers simply don’t pay enough attention.

Greenwood Avenue is a state road, so Ochs says getting more crosswalks and the like is a difficult task. With new housing, he says there will be more traffic. He wants the state to reevaluate the roadway. With more people parking downtown to go to restaurants, Ochs says the crosswalks may not be visible or in the best location.

Some sidewalks are going in in the Stony Hill section of town, as developers build they are required to put in sidewalks. Rist says the Plan of Conservation and Development will be focusing on the Route 6 corridor. She believes that is where a lot of commercial development can go in there, with some housing complexes as well. But she warned against sprawl, noting that guidelines are analyzed on a routine basis.