Newtown First Selectman Dan Rosenthal is taking a breath.
“It’s been a pretty intense few months,” he said at his office in the Newtown Municipal Center at 3 Primrose St. “But we’re just getting started.”
Indeed, with a plethora of commercial and residential developments either in process or under serious discussion, and with the imminent appointment of nine local businesspeople to a new business advisory council, there’s been no shortage of action coming out of the first selectman’s office since he was inaugurated on Dec. 1.
The Newtown Business Advisory Committee (NBAC), something that was a cornerstone of Rosenthal’s campaign, is quickly coming into focus. Limited to nine members — with no more than three each from a given business sector — representing businesses located in the town, the committee would essentially serve to keep the Board of Selectmen apprised of concerns and developments.
Rosenthal would also like to have a number of nonvoting members join the NBAC’s quarterly meetings, depending on the agenda. Those could include Economic Development Commission Chairman Wes Thompson or a designee; Chamber of Commerce President Brian Amey or a designee; and/or journalists covering Newtown and Fairfield County, he said.
“I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback on the idea,” he said, noting that his preliminary research has revealed no other such town committee in the state.
Meanwhile, development at the 185-acre Fairfield Hills campus — which includes the Municipal Center — is continuing apace. Construction is underway on a 45,860-square-foot community center, funded by General Electric’s $10 million gift following the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre and another $5 million from taxpayers.
Its 35,210 square feet of facilities will include a six-lane, 25-yard lap pool, a recreational pool, a 5,000-square-foot banquet room, a full-size kitchen, and a number of exercise rooms, classrooms and multipurpose rooms.
The center — designed by Quisenberry Arcari Architects, based in Farmington, and being constructed by Sandy Hook firm Caldwell & Walsh — will also incorporate a $3 million, 9,450-square-foot senior center, which will replace the long-declining facility at 14 Riverside Road. Combining the two centers under one roof will help reduce costs associated with HVAC systems, maintenance and the like, Rosenthal said.
The first selectman said that he expected to name a community center director as early as next month — that search began in October, under Rosenthal’s predecessor Pat Llodra — followed by the appointment of a Community Center Commission to provide oversight. Construction is scheduled to be completed next year.
Rosenthal said that the 9,000-square-foot Stratford Hall building on the Fairfield Hills campus has been drawing commercial interest, reflective of his determination to add commercial presence to what is now a mélange of government facilities and sports fields — not to mention several visible reminders of the property’s legacy as a psychiatric hospital that closed in 1995, now in various stages of being demolished.
He’d also be open to exploring the building of a retail/commercial complex at the campus, he said, dismissing the idea that such an undertaking could negatively impact the 65,500-square-foot Village at Lexington Gardens complex, which opened two years ago less than a 10-minute drive from Fairfield Hills at 32 Church Hill Road.
There’s a plan to add a $4 million to $5 million ice arena to the Newtown Youth Academy Sports & Fitness Center on the campus, which if passed by the town’s planning and zoning boards could be operational by January 2019.
Possibly also joining the campus will be a new police headquarters — something that Rosenthal said has been under discussion “for probably 20 years.” For now, the police department’s 45 sworn officers along with dispatchers and some civilian staff are packed into less than 8,000 square feet at 3 Main St.; ideally, that many people should be working in a space triple that size, he said.
Three prospective sites have been identified: one in Fairfield Hills, which would be built from scratch; another in a 21,184-square-foot vacant building sitting on seven acres at 191 S. Main; and a third that would involve renovating and expanding the current police headquarters. “We should know by the end of May which site it’ll be,” he said.
Rosenthal estimated the cost of building an entirely new headquarters would probably be around $14.5 million — similar to what the under-construction police station in neighboring Bethel is costing. Budgeted at $13.5 million, that station is already some $900,000 over budget, and is still far from being completed.
Residential development also is continuing, though not without some hiccups. Hunters Ridge, a mixed-use complex proposed for a 35-acre site at 79 Church Hill Road, was originally pitched in 2015 by Trumbull-based developer 79 Church Hill Road LLC as a 350-unit complex which, when rejected by the town, was revised to 224 rental apartments in six multi-story buildings totaling about 55,000 square feet.
The main problem, Rosenthal noted, was that the Hunters Ridge proposal would have required additional sewer lines to be installed to accommodate about 44,000 gallons of daily usage. Rosenthal noted that, when sewers in the town were first mandated by the state about 20 years ago, “they were meant for environmental mitigation purposes, not for development.” He further noted that the Hunters Ridge development would exist outside Newtown’s central sanitary sewer district.
Newtown’s sewage treatment plant is rated to treat up to 932,000 gallons of wastewater a day, with 332,000 gallons reserved for municipal use, 100,000 gallons for Fairfield Hills, and 500,000 gallons for state use. Public Works Director Fred Hurley has stated that the town now uses “more than 200,000 gallons” of its allotment.
The town’s Water & Sewer Authority rejected the revised Hunters Ridge proposal on April 12, but said it will consider an alternate proposal — involving 141 apartments and no commercial space, while requiring about 20,868 gallons of daily sewage treatment on 3.5 acres that lie within the sewer district within the 35 acres — on May 10.
That proposal may also be doomed, however, as town zoning regulations do not allow such a high density of construction — one 77-unit building and one 64-unit structure — in that small a space.
Meanwhile, Planning and Zoning gave unanimous approval to The Riverwalk, a 74-unit multifamily complex on an 11.8-acre site at 10-22 Washington Avenue in Sandy Hook, on April 5. That project also went through a number of revisions since first being proposed in 2008. In addition, a 180-unit apartment complex near I-84’s Exit 9 in Newtown’s Hawleyville section is under construction.
Rosenthal said he’s heard few negatives about living and doing business in Newtown since taking office, except for evergreen complaints about taxes — Newtown’s mill rate in 2017 was 33.6, compared with nearby Brookfield’s 26.4 and Danbury’s 28.68 — but lamented how the state’s continuing economic problems are hurting its municipalities.
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s decision to cut state aid to towns and cities “certainly didn’t help,” Rosenthal said. “And I assume we’re not going to get (an increase of money) from the state this year.
“We’re doing what we can as business and community leaders,” he added. “But it’s the leadership in Hartford that has to do the heavy lifting.”