A Shift In Newtown’s Bureaucracy

There is a strip of open space that runs from the south to the north and east, skirting behind the ball fields at Reed Intermediate School, along Old Farm Road by open fields toward the point near Commerce Road where the Pootatuck River joins Deep Brook. Conservation Commission Chair Ann Astarita told The Bee last week that she is particularly concerned about this tract, known as the Deep Brook Open Space. It is supposed to protect Deep Brook, one of just nine Class I trout streams in the state. Last year, however, a toxic substance drained into the brook from storm water discharge pipes emanating from the Fairfield Hills complex. After the contamination was discovered, only four small live fish were found in a quarter-mile stretch of Deep Brook. Scores of fish were killed. Last week, Ms Astarita called the fish kill a “real environmental hit,” and urged the community to be more protective of its natural resources.

This week, the Board of Selectmen announced the consolidation of the land use and environmental offices serving the Conservation Commission and other land use agencies, which protect the environmental integrity of places like Deep Brook, with its economic development offices, which seek to foster development at Fairfield Hills and throughout town. George Benson, Newtown’s director of planning and land use, who has been tapped to head up the expanded Planning Department, told the selectmen that his department has always had a role in economic development, working with the town’s director of economic and community development. So the departure of Elizabeth Stocker, the town’s development director, for a similar job in Norwalk earlier this month was an opening for the Board of Selectmen to “make things much more efficient and practical,” in the words of Selectman James Gaston.

There was no discussion at the Monday night meeting of the selectmen, when the consolidation was approved, about how the town might reconcile the sometimes conflicting missions of environmental officials and economic development officials in the context of a single municipal department. Advocates on both sides of the environment / economic development tug-of-war consistently ask for considerations and concessions from each other. We are not sure how those politically fraught questions will be resolved now that a single department is supporting and advising the elected and appointed commissioners of both the land use and economic development agencies in town. It had not been unusual for Ms Stocker to show up at hearings of the Planning and Zoning Commission, as she did in May this year to advocate for new permitted uses in industrial zones on behalf of the Economic Development Commission. What happens now? Will this advocacy happen in intradepartmental meetings rather than public hearings? What will the new Planning Department advise? And whom?

We have no doubts that the professionals working on both environmental and economic development issues within this new expanded town department share a deep commitment to both the environmental and economic health of Newtown. But checks and balances in areas where there are competing interests within a bureaucracy need to be systemic and not dependent on the personal impartiality of professional staff facilitating often-conflicting goals. We see red flags in this departmental consolidation. We will be watching to see which way the wind blows them.

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