Two volunteers are being sought to fill vacancies on the 10-member Inland Wetlands Commission (IWC); and two current members have been re-appointed. The commission has been in flux in the past two years since six members, who wanted to continue serving, were replaced.
The Board of Selectmen (BOS) also made appointments to the Branford Housing Authority to replace people who resigned.
At the recent BOS meeting, Suzanne Botta, a Democrat, was unanimously re-appointed to the IWC. Botta, who has served since 2001, is a professional science teacher, and has certification in wetland delineation.
Botta is now the longest serving member of the commission, since long-time commissioner John Rusatsky recently stated he was not interested in continuing his service. First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove said Rusatsky, whose term expired May 31, told him he did not wish to be re-appointed.
Rusatsky, who is undeclared politically, served on the IWC since 1998. He is a zoning enforcement officer in Stratford, and previously served as a wetlands enforcement officer in Cheshire.
Eric Rose, a Republican, was unanimously re-appointed to continue serving as an alternate. Rose, who was initially appointed one year ago, is president of E.M. Rose Builders Inc. of Branford.
In addition to Rusatsky, the other vacancy occurred with the resignation of Merle Berke-Schlessel, who was appointed as a full member in August 2015. It was announced at the IWC meeting last month that she was resigning due to a scheduling conflict that would not allow her to attend meetings on a regular basis. Berke-Schlessel, a Republican, was slated to serve another year.
Cosgrove told the Eagle that anyone wishing to apply for the two vacancies may contact his office.
Of the seven members and three alternates who served this past year, there were six Republicans, one Democrat, and three undeclared, according to the town web site. Branford’s Town Charter does not dictate the political make-up of the IWC. In the past, commissioners who resigned, or were replaced, were not necessarily replaced by a person of the same political affiliation.
The commission, which consists of seven full members and three alternates, has undergone numerous changes since the BOS voted 2-1 in August 2015 and June 2016 to remove six of the 10 members whose terms had expired. All six wanted to continue serving, but were replaced. There was also a vacancy due to the death of a long-time member during that timeframe, so only three of the 10 people who previously served were still on the commission. Those three were Botta, Rusatsky, and Peter Bassermann, an engineer who now serves as chairman. Bassermann, a Republican, was appointed as an IWC alternate in 2010, and became a full member in November 2015.
The BOS 2-1 vote in August 2015 designated that two of the new appointees would serve as full members, instead of elevating alternates which is the usual process.
When the BOS voted 2-1 regarding the IWC appointments in 2015, the no vote was cast by the sole Democrat on the panel, Third Selectman Bruce Storm. The no vote in 2016 was cast by Democrat Third Selectman Jack Ahern. Cosgrove and Second Selectman Joe Higgins voted in favor of the appointments.
The new commissioners appointed in 2015 were Berke-Schlessel, the CEO of the United Way of Eastern Fairfield County; James Goggin, a former school teacher, who had served on the Inland Wetlands Commission in Harwinton; and Richard K. Greenalch, an engineer who works for Munger Construction in Branford.
Among the three commissioners who were replaced in 2015 was Dr. Richard Orson, one of the leading inland wetlands scholars in the state. Orson’s removal set off a stream of criticism.
Then, in June 2016, the BOS voted 2-1 vote to remove three long-time commissioners, including Danny Shapiro, who served on the IWC since 1995 and had been chairman for about 20 years. Shapiro and several residents who attended that BOS meeting criticized Cosgrove’s actions. Click here to read the story.
Cosgrove (pictured) explained his actions at the June 1, 2016 meeting: “I know my role as first selectman. And I never overreach beyond my authority or try to influence or interfere in the process of decision-making,” he said.“This is not about a single applicant. This is about a land use commission, volunteers wanting to serve in a capacity they haven’t before.”
Four new commissioners were appointed in June 2016, including one to fill an alternate vacancy. In addition to Rose, those appointed were James Sette, chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals; Sandra Kraus, a business manager; and Rick Ross, a developer who previously served on Branford’s IWC. Also at that time, the BOS re-appointed Bassermann.
Greenalch and Kraus are undeclared; Sette , Goggin and Ross are Republicans., according to the town web site.
The Costco Element
The three membership changes that were made in August 2015 occurred shortly before Costco was expected to submit its site plan application to build a commercial complex at Exit 56. The 44-acre Planned Development District (PDD) and Master Plan were approved by a 3-2 vote of the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission in July 2015. The developers still had to seek approval for specific site plans by the IWC and P&Z.
The IWC changes in June 2016 occurred after Costco and the other developers withdrew their applications in late April, shortly before the IWC was set to begin deliberations and possibly vote. If the projects were denied, the developers could not re-submit the same proposals.
It was anticipated that Costco and the other developers would re-submit their plans for consideration by a changed commission. To date, none of the developers have re-submitted their applications, and Costco announced in February 2017 that it was no longer interested in Branford.
Another controversy arose last year after the IWC voted 4-3 on May 12, 2016, to enact revised regulations. This occurred before the chair and two other commissioners were not re-appointed to the commission. At the time, Cosgrove stated in a press release that the vote on the regulations was “an unprecedented abuse of power.” He criticized the commission for not waiting for a legal review of the regulations before voting.
Several developers subsequently filed legal appeals of the new regulations: Charles Weber and Al Seconding through their 595 Corporate Circle corporation; Secondino and Michael Belfonti through their Bittersweet Partners LLC corporation; Rita Ann Sachs and New World Recycling; and Alex Vigliotti of Vigliotti Construction Co. The case was moved to the land use court in Hartford.
In August 2016, the commission unanimously voted to put the new regulations on hold for six months and operate under the previous ones. That action also put a six-month stay on court proceedings and allowed the parties to attempt to reach a resolution. Whatever discussions were held were in executive session and not disclosed because of the court case.
The IWC commission voted unanimously in January 2017 to approve clarifications and revisions of the May 2016 regulations. Botta and Rusatsky, who both voted in favor of the May regulations, said most of the changes in the 2017 version were minor.
Also at the recent BOS meeting, the commissioners unanimously appointed new members to the Branford Housing Authority. Michael Calter will fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Frank Carrano; and Kate Collins will fill a vacancy left by long-time member Joseph Chadwick. Christine Buono will serve as a tenant commissioner. Neither Carrano nor Chadwick responded to a question from the Eagle as to why they resigned.
With the resignation of Carrano and Chadwick, the Housing Authority faced quorum problems.
Calter is a professor at Wesleyan University, and chair of the chemistry department. He has experience with non-profit organizations.
Collins was a chief financial officer and comptroller for a skilled healthcare corporation operating in Connecticut and Massachusetts. She later served as a consultant for non-profit organizations, primarily Family Services Inc. of Bridgeport.
The Housing Authority has been in the news during the past year because of its efforts to rebuilt Parkside Village I, which houses low-income elderly, and people with disabilities.
Plans to replace the aging Parkside Village I complex at 115 S. Montowese St. have been ongoing for several years. Beacon Communities LLC of Boston was hired by the Housing Authority as the development team for the project.
Beacon’s proposal to P&Z was withdrawn last year shortly before the cut-off date to apply for federal funding in November. The authority and Beacon have been working on new plans. The possibility of using an alternate piece of property at the former Branford Hills Elementary School was considered, but a sub-committee for the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) abandoned the idea when it ran into legal issues. The Housing Authority is now in the process of creating new plans for replacing Parkside Village I at the original Montowese Street site.
The three buildings that comprise Parkside Village I were built in the 1970’s, and are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The buildings, which include 50 small units, are deteriorating, and there are no elevators. A second complex on adjacent property, Parkside 2, which has 40 units, was built in 1985, and has been updated with state grants.
The Housing Authority, which is not a town entity, is responsible for operating the Parkside Village complex, and does not deal with any other housing projects in town.