SOUTHINGTON — Candidates for Town Council say development, land preservation and taxes are the top concerns for voters in the upcoming election.
Democrats have five of the nine council seats with Republicans holding the remainder. One incumbent from each party isn’t running for reelection, Michael Riccio on the Republican side and Dawn Miceli on the Democratic side.
Democrat Valerie DePaolo, a local attorney and library board member, is looking to gain a seat on the council this November.
She’s heard a lot of concern about development from residents and said town leaders need to consider slowing growth a bit.
“I think it’s really just trying to be smart to where we want development to go,” DePaolo said. “I do feel like the residential — we have a lot of it.”
She’s been talking with Town Economic Development Coordinator Lou Perillo and is interested in the prospect of another industrial park.
Republican Jim Morelli, a Planning and Zoning Commission member, is running for the Town Council. Conservation and development is a top concern for voters, he said. Morelli is in favor of using a combination of land and development rights purchasing to maintain open land.
“The only way to stop development of a property is to take it off the market,” he said.
The council didn’t include development rights in a referendum last year authorizing spending on open space. In 2015, the Republican-led council bought development rights for Hawk’s Landing Country Club for just under $1 million.
“There will never be 35 houses built there,” Morelli said, citing an estimate of how many homes could be built on the golf course. “It’s an integral portion of that whole space in town.”
Developments rights as an open space preservation tool needs to be better explained to residents, Morelli said. Often taxpayers expect to be able to use any land on which public money is spent.
Chris Poulos, an incumbent Democrat running for reelection, said he’s not opposed to development rights but wants them voted on in a separate referendum. For the past few years, the town has requested $2 million from voters for the purchase of open space.
“If you want to secure money for development rights, I think it should be a separate transaction so when people vote, they know what they’re voting for,” Poulos said. “We have to be fair to the residents and we have to be open and transparent when we ask for something.”
William Dziedzic, a Republican councilor running for reelection, said development rights had some advantages over open space purchases since they don’t burden the town with the cost of maintaining land.
“We need to be careful and smart about how we spend taxpayer dollars,” Dziedzic said.
He’s also heard concerns about development but said there are limitations to what the town can do.
“I think it’s important for the taxpayer to understand that taxpayers can do what they want with their property as long as it’s within the zoning regulations,” Dziedzic said.
Dziedzic feels the next Town Council will face some hard choices, including more state liability pushed on municipalities.
“We have some challenges coming to us in the near future,” he said. “Throughout this we will have to maintain fiscal discipline without sacrificing core services.”
Poulos said voters have been happy with the fiscal decisions made by the Democrat-led council.
“The most common comment I’m getting from people is that they’re pleased with the fact that we’ve kept taxes virtually flat in the past two years,” he said.
The council adopted a zero-tax increase budget two years ago and only raised the mill rate by .18 earlier this year.
Dziedzic said that the “facts were the facts” on tax increases but credited them more to the restoration of state aid late in the fiscal year and grand list growth.
Poulos said he’s focused on smart economic development and that the whole council has been better informed. Rather than work taking place in committee, town officials give economic development reports to the entire council, in public when possible and in executive session when there are pending deals.
“I enjoy being in the loop,” he said. “I’m pleased with what we’ve done.”