Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Local News

Madison Center Project Hits Another Impasse

The long-beleaguered Downtown Center Project, meant to beautify and reduce clutter along Boston Post Road through sidewalk enhancements and other improvements, has reached yet another impasse, as final easement negotiations with one property owner have broken down yet again and town officials are grappling with the unplanned-for cost of the project.

Assistant Town Engineer Rob Russo told The Source that while the town is at the cusp of an easement with one property owner, a “tentative” agreement reached with another property owner on the north side of Boston Post Road fell apart, and there has been “no real progress” in negotiations.

Additionally, First Selectman Peggy Lyons said she was informed that finishing the project, which requires underground lines to be buried and hooked up to the buildings along downtown, would cost around $335,000 that had not been accounted for in the budget.

Finishing the project all the way down to Route 79 will cost an additional unbudgeted $1.39 million, Lyons estimated.

While much of the project’s goals have been accomplished at this point, 18 years after its original conception and five years after construction began, the town still has not been able to wrap up the final portion of this phase and bring down the electrical poles.

According to Lyons, there are no written records of Eversource committing to absorb costs from the project. She said she had spoken to State Representative Noreen Kokoruda (R-101) as well as former first selectmen Tom Banisch and Filmore McPherson over the summer in an attempt to figure out what had happened with the funding of the project.

Lyons said that Banisch told her “a few” property owners had offered to help cover the costs, and he had agreed to meet with Russo and town officials to help the identify those people.

Banisch told The Source via text message that there had been discussions of a meeting, but that he “didn’t have anything to do with” hooking up the properties once infrastructure was in place. He said he thought that around $30,000 had been allocated at some point by the Board of Selectmen (BOS), but added that most of the negotiations had been under Filmore McPherson’s administration.

At a Sept. 9, 2019 BOS meeting, Banisch stated that Eversource had assured him that it would cover the cost of poles being removed. Selectman Scott Murphy questioned Banisch as to whether he “had that in writing,” to which Banisch replied, “They said it publicly.”

Kokoruda said she had been present at a meeting some years ago with Banisch, Town Planner Dave Anderson, and representatives from Eversource where the company promised to remove the poles for free. She also said she had a more recent conversation with an Eversource representative who had expressed optimism the company would still honor that agreement.

Lyons said though it was still not clear if the cost of poles being removed would fall on the town, she thought some of the confusion around the financial burden of the project was due to its distribution, with the cost of removing the poles being only a portion of the estimated $355,000 total amount, and hooking up all the property owners being the more expensive part.

McPherson told The Source he could not recall definitively what funding had been set aside for what portions of the project, but his recollection was that the town had agreed to a “mid-five-figure number” to hook up property owners to the new wiring.

Kokoruda had helped secure around $1.85 million in state grants for the project through its major construction phase, which wrapped up in 2016. The town has already spent just under $1 million beyond that in the form of special appropriations and planning reserve funds, according to Lyons, about $330,000 more than the original 2015 estimate.

According to Russo, the easements with the property owners must be signed before the town can move forward with any of the construction aspects of the project.

One property owner on the south side of Boston Post Road has been “more than agreeable,” Russo said, and he expected that easement to be resolved shortly. Potentially that agreement could allow the town to take down poles on that side of the street, even without a resolution for the north side, Russo said.

Eversource had originally said both sides of the street would likely need to be taken care of simultaneously, according to Russo.

The owner of the north side property, Roton Associates, has drawn out its conflict with the town and Eversource over multiple years. Banisch had initiated eminent domain proceedings during his administration that would have allowed the town to install the equipment without permission from the owner, but those were dropped back in October 2019 after the “tentative” agreement was reached.

Roton Associates is an LLC registered in Meriden, Connecticut, owned by Antony and Roger Astmann. A spokesman for Tony Astmann could not be reached for comment at press time.

Lyons said she was currently working on a way to get funding for the project in the next budget cycle, with details still being worked out. She said there were still challenges to overcome both with the funding and the easements, citing its long history and the complex nature of the project, spanning five first selectman administrations.

“I’m hopeful that we will get this resolved,” Lyons said. “I’m just about moving the ball forward right now and being transparent as possible.”


Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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