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Town Planner Plans New Life

by Diana Stricker | Jul 23, 2013 1:15 pm

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Mary Johnson Photo Shirley Rasmussen (pictured) was looking for a challenge when she accepted the job as Branford’s town planner in 1986.

“I wanted to be where the action was,” she recalled with a laugh. “It’s one of those things—be careful what you wish for.”

Rasmussen came to Branford after 10 years at the Greater Bridgeport Regional Planning Agency. The job there was interesting, but she was ready to move on.

“I’ve been reminiscing a lot,” said Rasmussen, who is retiring this Friday, July 26,  after nearly three decades of being at the center of the major planning decisions in town.  “I was lucky to have found Branford …. I really have loved this job for a long time.”

It wasn’t easy deciding to leave the job she is so passionate about. “I will miss it, but the more I thought about it, there are advantages to not working,” she said. “It took me awhile to come to that conclusion …. But it’s time for a change for the town. A person can’t keep doing this forever. It’s time for the younger folks ...they have a lot to contribute. It’s time for a change.”

And there will be changes in several Town Hall departments, starting at the top.  First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos will retire when his term is up in November; Pat Andriole, the longtime director of the Branford Counseling Center, retired July 12; and Frank Carrano, the chair of the Board of Education, announced he is not seeking re-election.

Rasmussen has no special advice for her successor. “The next person may not have the same issues. … The job is really unpredictable and the source of difficulties is totally unpredictable,” she said. “It’s the randomness of the universe.”

TRANSITIONS THEN AND NOW

In the 1980’s, the town was in a major transition.

“That was the height of the condominium explosion,” Rasmussen said. Branford had the second highest number of residential building permits in the state prior to her arrival. About 600 residential units had been built the year before she took office in late 1986.

Changes were also underway with the Town Center Revitalization Project spearheaded by then-First Selectwoman Judy Gott. “Branford was a real trendsetter,” Rasmussen said.  “It was really fascinating.”

Adding to the activity at that time was an upcoming change in the tax laws that spurred developers to buy while it was still lucrative. One area of special interest was the sprawling property along Maple Street occupied by the former Malleable Iron Fittings (MIF) Company, which closed in 1971. The company, incorporated in 1864, was Branford’s largest manufacturer for decades.

The MIF site is now the location of the Anchor Reef upscale condominiums that were built about 10 years ago. But in the late 1980s, the property with riverfront access was a target for aspiring developers.

“They all had grandiose plans,” Rasmussen said, including one developer who had a plan to create more water access for the MIF property. “They were going to carve a canal into the property in order to get more waterfront.  It looked like Venice in Connecticut.”

That plan didn’t materialize.

“We had a parade of developers coming in,” Rasmussen said. “We had developers coming from all over the country. I remember one Texan with his 10-gallon hat and his alligator boots and his matching alligator brief case, who came to Branford to buy property. It was a crazy, crazy time the end of the 80s.” The Texan went home empty-handed.

Things changed rapidly as the national economy took a downturn in the early 1990s.

“The bottom fell out of the market. It was one of those cyclical things,” Rasmussen said. “Not too long afterwards, there were a lot of bankruptcies and dead projects.”

Development slowed for awhile but gradually picked up again. “Branford is amazingly resilient, and seems to be able to hold its own much better than a lot of other towns in Connecticut,” she said. “We have a good economic development base.”

Over the years the development peaks and valleys became more balanced. “Things evened out but we still had a lot of interesting projects,” she said.

Then the economy bottomed out again with the recent recession. “It’s comparable to the one in the early 90s, but this one’s gone on longer,” Rasmussen said.

Although larger projects have been on hold in recent years, smaller projects and renovations have been ongoing. “Since Branford’s huge development boom was in the 70s and 80s, a lot of what we’re working with now is retrofits or re-tenanting older buildings…We try to bring the sites up to date.” 

But things could be changing. Rasmussen said developers are beginning to submit applications again and there are rumors of major projects.

“It’s indicative that things are starting up again. We have a couple of potentially big projects in the pipeline. There’s always a lot of talk. It’s hard to know which ones will go all the way to an application, much less to getting built.” 

CHALLENGES AND SATISFACTIONS

Part of her job has been dealing with changes in zoning regulations over the years.

“Regulations keep getting more and more complicated, in part because of state statutes and in part because we try to control more and more things that are not easily controlled,” Rasmussen said. “There’s been a general trend toward litigiousness….the good old days are gone when people weren’t so argumentative and critical of what their neighbors were doing.”

File Photo In recent years, the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) did a complete revision of the town’s zoning regulations to make them more user-friendly. The new regulations went into effect in 2011. Click here to read about that story.  Also under Rasmussen’s tenure, the P&Z created a new 10-year Plan of Conservation and Development to serve as a guide for development.

Rasmussen gave high praise to the staff in the planning and zoning department: Richard Stoecker, assistant planner; Laura Magaraci, zoning enforcement officer; and Jennifer Acquino, administrative assistant.

“The bulk of what we do is to support the Planning and Zoning Commission that makes all the zoning decisions for primarily commercial and multi-family projects. For every type of construction in town, you need not just a building permit but you need a zoning permit. So a large part of our job is to process those permits and applications.”

File Photo She has enjoyed working with P&Z chair Ellsworth McGuigan (pictured here) and the members of the commission. “He does a good job of balancing the various opinions on the commission as well as trying to put the applicants at ease,” she said. “The commission has been excellent—a super good group to work with. The meetings are one of the more interesting parts of the job, and actually seeing projects come to fruition.”

Permits can be issued for simple projects, but more complex issues go before the P&Z Commission.

“For commercial and multi-family plans, the requirements get a lot more complicated. There are site plan requirements. ...And there are other disciplines involved.” There’s collaboration with other town departments such as engineering, building, inland wetlands, the East Shore District Health, the Walter Pollutions Control Department, and the fire marshal.

“We don’t want a project to get through all of these hoops and then find out they have to totally redo their plans. We try to coordinate all the way along the line so that everything works together. Our job in this progression is to look primarily at the site and also now at the aesthetics…We have design guidelines now for commercial buildings.” Other considerations are outdoor lighting, on-site traffic circulation, landscaping storm drainage and waste disposal.

“We try to make sure all these various parts work together and meet all the regulations and try to make sure there isn’t an undue negative impact on the town’s resources, infrastructure, and traffic circulation. A lot of what we do is working with developers.”

She said public hearings can be interesting and you can never tell which projects might generate pubic opposition. She recalled there was virtually no opposition to Wal-Mart when the project had its first public hearing years ago, but opposition soon grew. The issues were eventually resolved.

“It varies a lot,” she said in regard to public opposition. “It’s not necessarily correlated to the impact of the project,” she said.

Some of the more memorable projects over the years are the smaller, more personal ones. In the early 90s, Rasmussen began applying for Small Cities Grants from the federal Community Development Block Grant program. The housing rehabilitation loan program provided no-interest loans for lower-income homeowners to repair their homes. The program was especially beneficial for senior citizens. The loans didn’t have to be repaid until the home was sold, or until the homeowner passed away.

“The program has been very satisfying,” Rasmussen said. “It helps people stay in their homes, especially the elderly.” She said the program has been ongoing over the years, and that there were recently two large repayments which will allow additional loans to be made. “It always goes to people who need help.” She recalled one elderly woman who told her she wouldn’t have been able to stay in her home after her husband died if not for that loan for much-needed repairs. “I almost cried when she said that because she was so sweet.”

RETIREMENT BECKONS

Rasmussen said that age 67, she’s ready to retire. She and her husband plan to travel and spend time with family in California, Boston and Florida.

Born and raised in California, she moved to New England to attend graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. That’s where she received her masters degree in regional planning, and met her husband. Now that they’re both retired, she hopes there will finally be time for some local sightseeing. “I really love New England and we haven’t had the time to go around and explore.” Their plans also extend overseas. “We’ve been talking about taking a trip down the Rhine on a river boat, and we even took German classes.”

There were also practical reasons for her retirement. “I don’t want to drive through another winter,” she said, recalling the tedious commute from her home in Stratford. “Last winter was absolutely horrendous.”

Rasmussen said she will miss her friends and colleagues. “It’s been a terrific crew to work with,” she said. “People have been very generous with their time and expertise, and commitment to doing a good job. …. I’ve been very fortunate to get that kind of cooperation.”

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