A debate for Greenwich Selectmen candidates at the Round Hill Community House drew a standing room only crowd of about 300 on a rainy Tuesday night.
The evening started on a positive note for back country residents in the 4-acre zone when John Conte, president of the Round Hill Association, read aloud a letter to Wetlands Director Pat Sesto from the attorney for the developer who sought to use the Historic Overlay regulation to develop the former Mel Gibson estate into cluster housing in a condo arrangement with 28 homes. The crowd cheered when they heard the letter said the proposal had been withdrawn.
First, the Selectman candidates Lauren Rabin (R) and Sandy Litvack (D) were asked by LWV Greenwich moderator Jara Burnett how they would envision their role if they were part of majority rule on the Board of Selectmen versus as minority role.
“I’d want to focus on economic development to move the town forward. I talked about it two years ago and I’m still talking about it,” said Sandy Litvack who has served for two years in the minority on the Board of Selectmen with Republican First Selectman Peter Tesei and Republican Selectman John Toner.
“As a minority selectman, what I’ve done is make sure the other side of every issue is aired and make sure all the facts are aired,” he said. “It is so easy for any majority to slip into the comfort zone of acting instead of asking the tough questions.”
Rabin, who has a background in high tech having worked at Gartner Inc in Stamford as a VP of marketing, in addition to years of volunteering on PTAs, youth football and the town’s social services board, said she had ideas about attracting high tech companies to town.
“We have so many amazing students who win Intel awards and they’re moving away,” she said, adding that there will be a void when Stamford redoes its town center to compete with the new mall in South Norwalk. “Also the airport is an issue.”
Returning to the economic development theme several times, Litvack said he’d work to attract tech companies to town like the animation studio that makes Greenwich home.
“Instead of coining slogans like ‘Think Greenwich,’ let’s get together and do it,” he said. The incumbent Democrat said that when he was recently knocking on doors, one resident said he wanted to open an ice cream shop.
“He asked, ‘Who do I talk to in town hall?’ The answer is, ‘Beats me. …There is no one charged with the responsibility of making it happen.”
In addition to having a go-to person at town hall for business owners, Litvack said, “I’d make sure we’re talking to the existing merchants who are here. What we’ve done is assume these people are here forever. They’re not. …We hear anecdotally it is very difficult to do business in Greenwich. Is it? What barriers can we remove? How can we attract new people into those stores? How do we revitalize downtown?”
Litvack said he’d like to see Greenwich Avenue turned into a pedestrian mall on some summer weekend nights.
“Let’s have music. Let’s get people in the habit of coming to the Avenue where there is a sense of excitement. It would attract people from all parts of town, and young people,” he said. “It’s a vibe and it’s a buzz.”
Rabin, who is finishing her term as a member of the Board of Education noted there have been five school superintendents in four years in Greenwich, said as Selectman she would embrace the new superintendent.
Also, Rabin said she’d bring her experience in high tech to town hall to make operations more efficient and cost effective. “When we put software into departments the employees will know how to use it,” she said.
“I’d partner with our state and federal representatives to deal with issues coming out of Hartford and Washington, DC,” she continued, adding that her friends are fleeing Greenwich daily. “I don’t want to see that happen to our town.”
“I would listen because we’re here to serve the community, not a specific party,” Rabin continued.
In her closing remarks she said she had abundant energy, experience and enthusiasm to bring to the job.
“You’ll see me at meetings, parades, and community events. You can approach me. I want to know what you’re thinking. Your voice will be heard.”
Rabin and Litvack different in their response to a question about specific plans for upgrades to Parks & Rec assets.
Rabin said she’d like to see the town expand its open space and fields, and that there are not enough natural grass fields for active or passive use.
“It’s using natural grass as opposed to turf. It’s dealing with soil remediation, though some of that is outside our control,” she said. “And to the degree possible, we should acquire open space and put in fields to attract young people and millennials.”
“To say we’re limited because of the State – that is a cop out,” Litvack said. “For the last 12 years we haven’t faced up to the issues at all. We have a field at Western Middle School which has been closed for three years. We have had total inaction. We close our eyes and pretend there’s no environmental issues and that the fields are all fine, when we know they are not. …We have to face the issue.”
In his closing remarks Litvack said, “I bring the fact that I’ve been a lawyer. I had two major law firms. I was the Assistant Attorney General under President Carter. I spent a decade at Disney, moving from the legal side to the business side. I’m not a marketer, but I engaged with the best,” he said adding that he expected to serve as a team with Jill Oberlander. “I believe we know what Greenwich needs. What we bring is leadership, a commitment, and that fact that there are no sacred cows.”
The second half of the evening was a debate between candidates for First Selectman Democrat Jill Oberlander and Republican Fred Camillo.
Camillo is a lifelong Greenwich resident who ran a business as a hauler and started a recycling company. He is finishing his sixth term as State Rep in the 151st district.
Oberlander said she graduated from University of Chicago Law School and in addition to working in law firms worked for the Downtown Alliance in Manhattan after 9-11 whose mission was to revive downtown. She also worked in New York City for the MTA.
The candidates were asked about the negative impact of the national political climate on Greenwich and what they would do to address it.
Oberlander, who is the chair of Greenwich’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, said, “These are partisan times and it’s trickled down locally. It’s attitudes and rhetoric. It is really unfortunate. Until recently we operated on a bi-partisan basis,” she said of the BET. ”
“When we move past this unfortunate and divided elections season we’ll resume collegiality,” she said, adding that she would lead by example.
Camillo said he had never seen such partisanship in town.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said, adding that some people are using local elections as a platform for a national agenda.
“I was raised by a Marine Corps drill instructor who said to lead by example, and never over promise,” he said, adding that in Hartford he had gotten about a dozen bills passed into law. “I couldn’t do that in the minority unless I could reach across the aisle.”
“Pointing fingers is actually not leading by example. Words matter. Marketing materials that make people feel unwelcome matter. That’s not leading by example,” Oberlander said, likely referring to Camillo’s slogan ‘From Greenwich, For Greenwich.’ “I’m a parent of three and will do my best to make sure my words, actions and marketing materials are inclusive and respectful, not pointing fingers.”
The candidates were also asked, in light of changing consumer preferences, how they would revitalize back country given its significant drop in home values versus in properties closer to the waterfront.
Camillo said one of the tenets of his campaign is to create a satellite business district in back country, saying small businesses like pharmacies could blend in with the residential feel of back country.
“I’d be protective of our 4 acre zone. That’s part of what makes Greenwich Greenwich,” he said adding that was why he had fought the development of the former Mel Gibson estate.
He said that if Greenwich were to acquire and protect the 80 acres available from Aquarion, that could be “a shot in the arm” to back country.
“I met with the gas company to see about extending the gas line to back country,” he continued, adding that the utility’s response was positive.
While Camillo focused on the idea of a satellite business district in back country, and adding to open space, Oberlander focused on having robust public schools to attract young families.
Oberlander said the Town’s Assessor said she expects the upcoming 5-year revaluation to shift value from back country toward the waterfront.
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“Our grand list she doesn’t predict will drop in the aggregate, but there probably will be a shifting of value. We’re very sensitive to that. We want property values high and taxes low….as well as a low and predictable mill rate,” she said.
“The best way to revitalize back country, in addition to keeping taxes low – we have to invest in our schools. In back country we have beautiful homes and resources. …We want to invest in our schools to improve deteriorating infrastructure to bring more young families here.”
Oberlander said under Democratic leadership, the BET had the lowest tax increase in a decade. She said the first year there was a rate increase of 0% and the second year the increase was lower than the annual increases under prior years of Republican rule.
“And I’m committed to keeping it that way,” she said.
“I appreciate her saying that, but what she doesn’t tell you is she was beneficiary of Republican initiate that saved us $13 million,” Camillo said.
Oberlander used time allotted to a different question to push back. “It was not a Republican initiative. It was started by the teachers. We got the advantage of it throughout the entire town. It was implemented through H.R. Yes I got the credit as BET chair, but I want to thank the teachers who initiated that and the other unions who agreed to go to the state health insurance plan.”
After a question about overdevelopment, Camillo said, “Greenwich is 67 square miles and has 62,000 people. In 1959 there were 59,00 people. …You don’t want to see a town of 80,000 people. I’ve worked on the state level on 8-30g toward a moratorium.”
The 8-30g is a Connecticut statute for affordable housing that has resulted in several controversial proposals in Greenwich that are all but exempt from local zoning regulations.
“We have a lot of work left to go,” he said.
Camillo quoted Mr. Litvack’s comment that there are no sacred cows. “The 4-acre zone is indeed sacred,” he said. “Even though the First Selectman doesn’t have zoning under his purview, you do have a strong voice.”
Oberlander said that following the conversation with the town’s assessor Lauren Elliot, she learned that the town’s mill rate is same for commercial as residential.
“So businesses locate here for our low taxes as well,” she said, adding that an economic development zone in northwest Greenwich might not work to Greenwich’s advantage. “I’d rather do some increased vitality through economic incentives.”
Asked their priorities were for capital projects and how they’d finance them, the candidates again differentiated themselves.
Oberlander said remediation of contamination and investing in Greenwich Public Schools would be her priorities, in addition to the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center and Hamill Rink.
“There’s so many priority projects because we’ve been pushing off projects for so long,” Oberlander said, using the roped off fields at Western Middle School as another example. “They’ve been closed for three years with no plan. And no, it’s not just the state. It was a decision made by our town departments, the First Selectman’s office not to push for a plan.”
Camillo disagreed. “I keep hearing from my opponent that we don’t fund enough, we don’t spend enough. I can’t think of a capital project in the past 30 years requested by our Board of Education that wasn’t funded,” he said adding that he wanted to stand up for First Selectman Tesei.
Camillo said one of his priorities would be fields and funding them through public-private-partnerships, mostly with philanthropic organizations.
He also talked about “naming opportunities,” and said that in either of the two towns that Greenwich is often compared, Palm Beach, FL and Beverly Hills, CA, “You’ll walk into a performing arts center named after somebody. You’ll walk into a hockey rink named after somebody.”
“Government needs to be the primary seat at the table for public facilities,” Oberlander said. “To protect yours, mine and children’s ability to use them.”
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Asked about a possible northwest fire station, Mr. Camillo said as First Selectman public safety is of the utmost importance.
“You have to provide the most possible protection at the most efficient cost,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to comment until we see the study.”
Oberlander said she is on record as supporting a northwest fire house and had voted for it each time it had come up on RTM or BET.
Noting the fire that left a commercial building in Cos Cob uninhabitable Monday night, Oberlander said, “Every resident should feel comfortable that they’re safe in their homes.”
“I am an associate member of the Cos Cob Fire Police Patrol,” Camillo said. “I also know professionals. It’s not something I have to study and look down at my notes.”
Candidates were asked if it made sense to have Greenwich’s Housing Authority build two new developments – one at Quarry Knoll and one at Armstrong Court – mostly priced at market rate rather than affordable or low income.
The Housing Authority has submitted that since the federal government, through HUD, is getting out of the business of funding public housing, new projects need to be self funding.
Up to 225 units are proposed at Quarry Knoll and 50 units at Armstrong Court. Roughly 90% will be priced at market rates up in order to fund the 10% affordable units.
“Is it right for the Housing Authority to be in the commercial real estate business?” the candidates were asked.
“The Housing Authority under Sam Romeo’s leadership has put in more units than I’ve seen maybe ever,” Camillo said, adding that his grandmother lived at Armstrong Court. The Housing Authority is doing one heck of a job. “I’m not here to criticize the Housing Authority,” he continued adding that when he suggested setting aside two units in Armstrong Court for victims of domestic violence the Housing Authority jumped at it. “This is a good partner for Town of Greenwich. Hats off to Sam Romeo and the whole board and to Anthony Johnson for doing an excellent job.”
Ms. Oberlander said the problem that needs to be solved is providing workforce housing for teachers, firefighters and police officers, as well as housing for the aging who want to stay in town.
“It would be nice of the Housing Authority were to address those problems,” she said.
“I’ve not seen the plan,” she continued. “They’ve not reached out adequately to the community. There are people who live there who want to know what’s being proposed. If you have a transformation to market rate. Is there a demand for market rate? I know there is a demand for affordable, workforce and senior housing.”
At Greenwich High School We the People are organizing a debate among Selectmen candidates on Nov 1. Though it is only open to students, the media are invited to cover the event. Watch this space.
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