EAST HADDAM – Under pressure of legal deadlines and holidays and a developer’s building impatience, the joint meeting of the boards of Selectmen and Finance was called this week to move along in redesigning the future of the downtown village.
But in the end, that goal was derailed by the boards’ agreement that the process had become a doomed-to-fail example of the cart before the horse — an expression that came up repeatedly during the session.
“It seems, in my humble opinion, that the cart is sort of before the horse here,” finance board member Harvey Thomas said less than ten minutes into the meeting that would feature nearly three hours of debate over how to proceed toward a public referendum on a developer’s proposal to turn the mostly-abandoned riverfront village into a lavish hub of commerce.
And in the meeting’s final moments late Wednesday night, First Selectman Irene Haines invoked the ancient phrase again as she floated a quickly-approved motion to shelve any official decisions on Swing Bridge Landing until next year.
“That’s the problem,” Haines said, referencing Thomas’ opening comments and the agreement that more work on many fronts was needed before the question could be put to taxpayers. “To go way back two-and-a-half hours when you said we’re putting the cart before the horse. That chicken and the egg kind of scenario.”
A referendum on perhaps the most hotly-debated topic in town in decades had tentatively been scheduled for Dec. 14.
Final details of the referendum question were to be decided Wednesday, centering on whether the town should enter into negotiations to sell the 2.75-acre heart of the village for $450,000 to local architect and developer Jeff Riley and his Centerbridge Group of investors.
And though no other formal votes were taken Wednesday, members of both boards appeared to agree that a Village Redevelopment Agency now being formed by the town should study myriad aspects of the proposal and make its recommendation on it before voters are asked to weigh in.
“One would imagine a more orderly process,” Thomas said, in which the redevelopment agency would advise residents if Riley’s approximated $50 million, 94,000 square-foot proposal “is the best thing since sliced bread or no, it doesn’t really fit our vision for the village.”
Most board members agreed that a redevelopment agency should provide the town with answers to several major questions before a referendum is held, including what costs taxpayers would incur; what, if any, tax abatements would the project be given; what are the implications for traffic in the area, and whether the town should sell the property at all or maintain ownership and lease it to Riley.
“What bothers me is that we have no idea what the cost to the town will be,” finance board member Todd Gelston said, adding that the property offering expansive views of the Swing Bridge and the Connecticut River below is a valuable town asset that perhaps should not be sold. “We’re essentially putting the cart before the horse. I don’t think there’s any rush to sell this property, right?
Other questions raised included what liability the town might have if it agrees to sell the site to Riley, but then the project is subsequently blocked by decisions by other town boards such as the Planning and Zoning Commission that would have to approve it, with public input.
In lengthy public comment at Wednesday’s meeting, several residents voiced doubts about the viability of the project and the speed of the referendum process.
Mark Thiede, owner of the popular Two Wrasslin’ Cats café in town, said he has heard complaints from many customers who believe the town is “ramrodding” the public on a referendum without providing clear information on exactly what the vote would mean.
“We know that Jeff Riley wants to buy this property and everything else is a mystery,” he said.
Resident Laurel White, a member of the East Haddam Village Alliance formed in opposition to the proposal as it stands now, said she fears that the ambitious scale of the shops, restaurants and apartments that Riley has proposed will ruin the historic look and feel of the compact village, which includes the landmark Goodspeed Opera House.
“There isn’t a person in Connecticut who doesn’t recognize that iconic view,” of the village that sits on the east end of the East Haddam Swing Bridge, White said.
She added that perhaps Riley “should take this to Moodus Center,” the village in the northern section of town that was leveled for redevelopment in the 1960s and replaced with strip malls – a transformation that still draws the ire of many residents.
One consistent supporter of moving ahead with the referendum and the project during the meeting was Randy Dill, a member of the town’s East Haddam Village Revitalization Committee that for more than a decade has been trying to attract development in the area – and had passed a resolution that the vote should take place next month.
He stressed that Riley was the only developer to even offer a proposal during his time on the commission, and is concerned that Wednesday’s vote to table the matter may prompt Riley to abandon the project and leave the site “a parking lot.”
“It takes a unique developer,” to take on the complicated project, Dill said, “and I think that’s Centerbrook.”
Riley, who has long-expressed frustration at the protracted approval process on the proposal he made nearly two years ago, has said he would consider calling the whole project off if a referendum did not give it overwhelming support.
He could not be reached for comment despite several attempts since the meeting.
Haines, who took office less than three weeks ago with a vow to get the project to a public vote, says she is intent on making the project happen, and will work toward holding a referendum in January.
“I am not going to let this go,” she said. “I’m moving the ball down the field and we need to go back to the drawing table and get a more pertinent referendum question and bring this to a vote of the people.”
Haines said she has not spoken to Riley since the meeting, and has “no idea” if he plans to continue with the project.
“We’re hoping he’s going to hang in there with us,” she said. “But if not, we’re going to try to market ourselves to other developers. We tried our best and it didn’t work out so we’re going to move on.”
Steve Jensen was a journalist for 13 years with the Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer of Manchester before becoming a Communications Director for the State of Connecticut. Jensen covers politics and law enforcement for CT Examiner. T: 860 661-6404