The Board of Selectmen moved quickly to reorganize Newtown’s Land Use, Planning, and Economic Development functions following the recent departure of Director of Economic and Community Development Director Elizabeth Stocker, who has taken a new job with similar responsibilities in Norwalk.
On August 18, selectmen endorsed eliminating the economic and community development director position and promoting Land Use Director George Benson to Director of Planning; increasing the responsibilities of Deputy Land Use Director Rob Sibley; and converting the economic development coordinator from a contract to a staff position, with added responsibilities for Betsy Paynter.
Christal Preszler, who handled some economic development support as well as duties for the Fairfield Hills Authority as a contract hourly worker, will become a town staffer with added responsibilities as Newtown’s new grant coordinator.
Selectmen unanimously voted to transfer $33,048 from budget lines tied to the former Planning and Community Development office, to provide pay increases and benefits to the new staffers.
According to a flow chart presented by First Selectman Pat Llodra, Mr Benson will now oversee most aspects of town planning, interact regularly with Planning & Zoning staff, Fairfield Hills Authority, and the Economic Development Commission (EDC).
He will review all proposed commercial and municipal developments, business uses and location assessments, interpret statutes, review subdivisions, coordinate on Borough of Newtown planning, and special projects, ultimately reporting to the first selectman.
Mr Sibley will now oversee operations in the Land Use Department, its inland wetlands and conservation personnel, coordinate with inland wetlands and conservation commissions, handle open space acquisitions and reviews, zoning and wetlands enforcement, and will act as the borough conservation official.
He will directly manage five salaried personnel — Steve Maguire, Gary Frenette, Jean St Jean, Tammy Hazen and Ann Mazur — and report to and coordinate with Mr Benson.
Ms Paynter will provide staff support to the economic development commission, along with marketing, outreach and data collection to help attract and retain appropriate economic development in the community.
Ms Preszler will do much of the same work she was doing on contract, and will fully absorb Ms Stocker’s responsibilities for identifying, applying for, and administering grants for the Town.
Wage, Benefit Increases
Wages for the economic development coordinator will increase to $47,000 with about $9,000 in added benefit costs, and the grant coordinator post will increase to $45,000 with about $15,000 in new benefits. The director’s current compensation of $80,313 increases by $10,000, and the deputy post wage of $75,319 will increase by $5,000. Social Security contributions for the two lead positions will be about $1,100.
The changes and consolidation of duties will save taxpayers about $20,000 according to Mrs Llodra’s documentation.
Mrs Llodra told Selectmen James Gaston and Will Rodgers that the reorganization aligns the various roles to personnel who each have a “natural fit” for their new and existing duties.
Mr Benson told selectmen that he and his department were always involved in economic development and grant business, but the reorganization will effectively eliminate “any disconnects” between staff and commission officials.
“I think it’s going to benefit the town, it’s a good fit,” Mr Benson said.
He said Ms Paynter was recently offered an economic development post in New Milford. But she decided to remain in Newtown where she could best apply her talents for marketing and developer relations.
Mr Benson said Ms Preszler, who worked with Ms Stocker for two years, has an MBA and will apply a strong analytical background to attracting more grant money to the community.
Mr Gaston said he has observed how the previously separate departments have overlapped, and strongly supported the reorganization.
“This is a fantastic idea,” Mr Gaston said. “It will make things much more efficient and practical.”
Mr Rodgers recused himself from much of the discussion and the vote because he previously represented Ms Preszler in his private law practice.
Conservation Versus Development
Following the meeting, Mr Benson explained that despite appearances, he believes the consolidation will enhance the town’s environmental protection and economic development efforts, versus creating competing interests under his management.
“I am an environmentalist, and have been one for 40 years, and so is Rob,” Mr Benson said referring to Mr Sibley. “Going back to the 1980s, I’ve always felt communities could best benefit when environmental and development entities work together in an environmentally safe way.”
Mr Benson said he knows from experience that “nine out of ten developers who go up against environmental officials in court will win, and then do anything they want.
“We’ve been trying to avoid that for years by doing what’s best for Newtown and best for our environment,” he said, pointing out that he and his office has stood against developers, a local water company, and even the town’s EDC on the matter of appropriately developing a local Tech Park.
“We should all be here to make Newtown better, not develop all over the place,” he said. “We get developers to [collaborate] by making our environmental concerns part of every discussion. Besides, personal property cases are extremely hard to fight, and the courts give a lot more leeway to developers.”
So Mr Benson said he strives to achieve compromise through collaborative design changes and concessions.
“You get those concession when you work with developers,” he said. “The reality is, we need the tax base [development brings], but we need to develop in an environmentally friendly way. Taking a non-confrontational position and avoiding litigation almost always gets us more environmental concessions, and it saves a lot of time and legal expenses.”
By the same token, Mr Benson said, when we see something that will harm the town, “we’ll fight.” He cited recent legal battles with the Housatonic Railroad and United Water Company as examples.
The new planning director said he thinks it will take about six months before the newly realigned personnel and responsibilities shake out, and the new department is operating at peak efficiency.