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With a view toward updating its Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), North Branford recently got on board with an opportunity to have the town viewed through a fresh set of eyes.
In December, a group of local leaders from Coventry, a town which shares some similar characteristics to North Branford, arrived unannounced to check out several areas of the community, as part of the First Impressions Connecticut program. Designed to give community leaders a sense of their town's strengths and weaknesses to help guide future improvements, First Impressions CT is a program of UCONN Extension (College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources) and Connecticut Main Street Center.
UCONN Extension Community and Economic Development Educator, Laura Brown, piloted the program in 2015 with towns including Canton (Collinsville) and Putnam, and is helping extend its reach throughout the state.
"It's actually a very simple program, but after they do this, communities are overwhelmingly happy with the results of just having that perspective; even if it's reinforcing what they have been thinking for many years," said Brown.
North Branford Town Planner Carey Duques said the timing was perfect to join this year's First Impressions program.
"The main driver was that it just worked well with the timing of updating our Plan of Conservation and Development," said Duques.
Duques, together with Town Manager Michael Paulhus and North Branford Economic Development Commission's (EDC) Jan Finch, volunteered to be North Branford's town leaders making a similar assessment visit to Coventry in December.
"It was really nice visiting another community and reflecting on all that we have here," said Duques. "I have never been to Coventry before. I was expecting more farm land and an amazing number of farm stands; and what I found was their resources are geared more toward the lake [Lake Coventry] and the Willimantic River. It made me appreciate what we do have here."
For their part, the team of eight from Coventry were duly impressed with a lot of what Northford and North Branford has to offer.
"Being in North Branford, we often hear we don't have direct access to I-95, Route 1 or I-91 – but compared to another town, we do have a lot of industry here, and we do have great access with Route 80 and Route 22," said Duques. "So we are kind of in the center of it all, as compared to other towns in the state that are much more rural."
All of the results from the Coventry team's visit, including some very telling direct quotes, are published in a report produced by First Impressions CT. The report's currently available to the public [see related file] and under review by leadership groups including the Town Council, Planning and Zoning Commission and EDC, said Duques.
"We're going to use the information as we update the Plan of Conservation and Development; possibly to help us identify some initial projects to tackle," said Duques.
The POCD, updated every ten years, is a guide produced by the town to provide a roadmap for future development, sustainability, conservation, preservation and planning. North Branford will soon begin undertaking a review of the current POCD and gathering input, including public comments and ideas, to update the plan by 2019.
One of the main impressions which the Coventry team had was the distinct differences between Northford and North Branford, said Duques.
"Northford is a village within North Branford, and I think that the EDC is doing a great job of bringing the two areas together. But one take away in the report was that the visitors said they came in through Northford, so they had the village feel; and then what they were describing as more of a city feel in North Branford," said Duques.
The Coventry leaders were very impressed with North Branford's Senior Center offerings in the Stanley T. Williams Community Center, said Duques.
"That was another big take away, our senior center and the services that are available," said Duques.
The town's numerous farm stands were also stand-out items from the perspective of the Coventry team. In 2017, the EDC teamed up with the Town and the North Branford Agriculture Commission to develop a farm trail brochure/map promoting many farm stands, markets and other agritourism offerings, including the town's two vineyards.
The team also commented favorably on North Branford's outdoor assets.
"They saw our lakes as an opportunity; but they are private and not open to the public, so we don't have that as a resource," said Duques. "But my own take away is we could look at more promoting our walking trails [like]the [North Branford] Land Trust, which has been doing an amazing job at really being active to promote their lands in North Branford."
Opportunities for improvement spotted by the Coventry team include better signage to help welcome visitors and also to better identify town-owned property. The town is currently in the discussion stages of upgrading signage, said Duques.
"The first thing we're looking at is improving our welcome signs; and we're also looking at having some kind of branding, whether it's the same size or color or same look; so it's easy to identify town owned properties," she said.
Overall, as produced in the First Impressions report, the visitors saw positives in the town's diverse range of businesses, restaurants and services; and noted North Branford has an abundance of agricultural businesses. The visitors also felt there was a friendly, welcoming character to the town.
Potential opportunities they pointed out included improving signage and better connectivity and walkability between areas of town to reach amenities (such as parks/playscapes); supporting agricultural assets and helping develop agritourism, and better capitalizing on outdoor recreational offerings including lake use.
The Coventry team saw the town's major obstacles as including the need for better cohesion between Northford and North Branford, a lack of diverse housing options; and the need to protect wooded land, open space and agricultural land from development.
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