Commuter branch lines top legislative wish list
Published 5:18 pm, Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Fairfield County leaders asked state legislators to seek funding to improve the New Canaan and Danbury branch lines, and maintain funding to support bus service, as two major goals for the upcoming legislative sessions.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton said that a $290 million project to electrify the Danbury Line and a $34 million set of improvements to the New Canaan Line are as important as any large projects in the state to improve the state's economy.
"It is really something that involves the entire economy of the state to bring the Danbury and New Canaan branch lines up to speed," Lavielle said. "Why? We know how much this region of the state contributes to the economy of the state of Connecticut."
Lavielle and other regional officials shared the legislative goals of the South Western Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is made up of the chief elected officials of municipalities from Greenwich to Weston at the agency's annual legislative breakfast at Norwalk City Hall.
In addition to improvements to the Danbury and New Canaan lines and calls for transit funding, the group also requested elimination of a state statute that makes zoning enforcement officers liable for damages for enforcing land use laws, and making it easier for smaller towns to compete for economic development grants.
State Sen. L. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, and other legislators told officials that the major rail projects face potential hurdles this year, including a recent realization the state will require more than $80 million in additional spending cuts to balance the budget.
"Most of these issues we can work on," Frantz said. "We do believe the New Canaan and Danbury branch line projects are important to bring economic development to the area, but we have to look at the budget issues."
Weston First Selectwoman Gayle Weinstein told legislators that beyond the high priority to modernize the Danbury and New Canaan lines, chief elected officials tried to keep the financial weight of the requests light.
"We understand that there isn't as much money because doing our own budgets we know there is less money," Weinstein said.
Laurence Bradley, zoning enforcement officer for the town of Westport said that legislators should also amend statutes that makes zoning enforcement officers liable for treble damages if they are found to have issued a citation for violating land use laws "frivolously."
Bradley said the statute tends to deter towns from the proper use of enforcement actions or fines to force compliance by contractors because of fear of significant liability.
"The law isn't clear on whether the treble damages apply to just the fines levied or for the cost of a project being shut down," Bradley said. "It has a chilling effect when municipalities who won't adopt a citation policy because of the liability."
State Rep. Livvy Floren, R-Greenwich said that she couldn't see a reason in the public interest to hold a zoning enforcement officer personally liable for damages for issuing citations.
"It seems like one of those laws that has been on the books too long," Floren said.
Steve Kleppin, town planner for the town of New Canaan, said legislators need to expand criteria of grant programs geared towards smart growth and job creation that seem weighted in favor of larger cities.
Criteria set by the state Office of Policy & Management last year for towns and cities applying for a share of $5 million in Transit Oriented Development pilot grant program required that applications request at least $250,000, a larger amount than most towns like New Canaan and Wilton would require for planning purposes.
Most of the money approved through the program went to cities, including Stamford, Norwalk, and New Haven, while requests from New Canaan and Wilton were rejected.
"They could establish a tiered approach based on the size of the population and maybe set aside a proportion of the money for towns of different sizes," Kleppin said.
Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan also expressed disappointment with the state's decision to require towns to resubmit applications for the TOD grant program, reversing a decision made in 2008 to give Wilton grant money for the program.
"It's a disincentive to preparing the applications when something like that happens," Brennan said. "When the second round was eventually distributed we didn't get it on the second round."