Benson To Retire After 17 Years With Town
At 70, Director of Planning George Benson has decided that it’s time to retire from the municipal workforce — but possibly not retire altogether.
Benson’s final day is December 2, ending 17 years of service to the town, and he says he has no plans other than to relax at the beginning.
“It’s time to relax, go to Rhode Island [where Benson has family], go to the beach,” said Benson.
After a bit of further thought, Benson said beyond his initial relaxation, he will “probably volunteer” with a nonprofit dealing with the environment, lakes and rivers. Benson was a limnologist earlier in his career. A limnologist is a scientist who studies the characteristics of fresh water systems such as lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands.
He likely won’t consider volunteering with any political board or commission, however.
Benson said the decision to retire has been a “mixed bag, enjoyable but stressful.”
“I’m trying to keep a good sense of humor,” said Benson.
Benson said that Newtown has been a great place to work. He said that he has never seen a staff before where “everyone gets along,” and he credits those on boards and commissions for wanting to do what’s “best for Newtown.”
“They may disagree on the details but the objective is the same,” said Benson.
Benson said he sees a lot of cooperation between town departments, agencies, and commissions.
“Working here has been a great experience,” said Benson.
Benson said among his accomplishments were building the Land Use office into what it is today. He said it is “more proactive” in dealing with applications and more responsive to environmental concerns. Many of the staff he has hired have come from environmental backgrounds.
“We try to balance development versus the environment,” said Benson.
Benson said that his office has taken on “a lot more responsibility” than it had when he began, including heading up the Economic Development department and administering open space.
The Early Days
When he came into the position, his office only handled zoning and wetland permits. The staff is more involved with other agencies in town now and works with people to answer all their questions. They help develop the planning process and work around environmental issues before they reach the Planning & Zoning Commission or the Inland Wetlands Commission.
Benson’s position has changed from land use director to director of planning; his responsibilities include town planning, review of commercial and municipal developments, pre-application reviews and meetings, business use and location assessment, interpreting state statutes, management of special projects, reviewing subdivisions, borough planning, and administration of Land Use and Economic Development staff.
Benson also said that many of the people and staff in the Land Use office have been there “a long time.”
“That’s not just me, but also Rob [Sibley, deputy director of planning],” said Benson.
Sibley noted that when they both started, they had been “pigeonholed” into limited job descriptions that were simply how the land use office worked at the time.
But in 2007, then First Selectman Herb Rosenthal, father of current First Selectman Dan Rosenthal, had “a vision” to make it “more of an umbrella than a silo.” Sibley said that the department started with the “simple tasks of permitting or sampling,” but now it has worked up to Benson and himself having “complete oversight of the town’s past, present and future planning and zoning process.”
“Suddenly the agencies were talking to each other,” said Sibley. “We each had a skill set that lent itself to planning. [Benson] said he needed a deputy co-director that allowed him to bring his skills to the big projects, and me to help him out with those and handle the smaller projects.”
Benson said another big accomplishment is the realignment of Edmond Road, near Exit 10 of Interstate 84.
Dan Rosenthal said prior to the realignment, the area was “a big mess,” but with federal money from then-Senator Nancy Johnson, the town was able to do a lot of work to make the realignment a reality. The town only ended up paying $19,000 of its own money for a small piece of land.
A lot of land in the area was swamp, and there were redevelopment hurdles, such as land needing to be transferred between the neighboring businesses, right of way being acquired for the road, swampland to work around, and, according to Benson, a gas station to move — or at least move its planned location.
“It was a balance beam of sorts to get done,” said Rosenthal.
Benson said that the realignment took two years and there were “many land swaps,” particularly one between the gas station and Pizza Palace. He said that the first selectman at the time, Pat Llodra, wanted to clean up the area.
“It was the gateway to Newtown and it did not look good,” said Benson.
Connecting The Town
Rosenthal also noted that Benson helped fight against a transfer station that the railroad wanted to build in Newtown, and when the water company wanted to build a water line into a neighboring town.
The town is also “more contiguous,” said Rosenthal, as Benson has worked to get sidewalks from Main Street down into Sandy Hook.
“He helped connect the town more, physically and aesthetically,” said Rosenthal.
In addition to his work for the town, Benson pointed towards a 20 year study he worked on, ending in 2017 when the results were published by the state, on Ball Pond with two other scientists. Twice each year, Benson and two others would do water quality tests as well as write down observations of grass carp and other weeds.
“It was the state’s longest running study and it was the same three people the whole time,” said Benson.
Benson worked at Western Connecticut State University for six years as an adjunct professor of limnology from 1983 through 1989. He also worked with the Candlewood Lake Authority part time, from 1986 to 1989.
He worked for two different water management consultant companies before going out on his own as an aquatic consultant and environmental planner from 1991 through 2005 as Benson Environmental, Inc. In 2005, he applied for Land Use Director for Newtown and was hired by then-First Selectman Herb Rosenthal.
“The rest is history,” said Benson.
Sibley said he worked with Benson in one capacity or another for over 20 years. When he started in 2004, Sibley realized there was an opportunity for a new zoning officer and his “first thought” was Benson. In the time that followed, Sibley said Benson became both his “friend and mentor.”
“His appointment to the Land Use Agency meant a radically progressive and positive influence on the town,” said Sibley. “I look back at the journey over 20 years and I realize so much of Newtown’s changes and accomplishments are hugely influenced by [Benson’s] leadership.
Sibley also noted that since both Benson and himself were from town, Benson living in Newtown and Sibley living in Sandy Hook, they brought an intimacy to the job from living here and raising their families here.
“We have a personal connection,” said Sibley. “George always lifted up and looked at the community in many ways that folks said they weren’t sure how it would get done, or that it was a pipe dream. George’s perseverance has always been important to the town.”
Sibley said he couldn’t wish any better for Benson on his retirement.
“This is well deserved,” said Sibley. “He guided my professional life in ways I could not imagine.”
Advice And Engagement
Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Dennis Bloom said that he has been working with Benson for “quite a long time” and he thinks the town is “going to hurt” without Benson.
“George has been a godsend to this town,” said Bloom. “We’re going to miss him a lot.”
Bloom said he learned a lot from Benson and Benson always wanted what’s best for the town.
Former Economic Development Commission Chairman Wes Thompson said during his years with the commission, Benson was always a “key contact” and “always a point of stability.”
“[Benson] was always available for contact and gave realistic feedback and direction,” said Thompson. “He just didn’t give advice, but engagement on a project, and helped work on the details. He keeps things moving along while listening to both sides.”
Thompson said Benson will be “sorely missed” because of his “broad skill set, knowledge, and demeanor.”
Rosenthal noted that at this point, looking at all the town staff, it has been “blessed” to have people with as much experience as they have, and having experience within the town, such as Benson.
“At this point, he’s an institution,” said Rosenthal. “We’re grateful for all George has done. He lives in town, so he’s eating from the same cookie [as every other resident who lives in Newtown]. I’m happy he’ll be able to enjoy time with his family, out in Rhode Island. He’s certainly earned it.”
Rosenthal said that Benson’s position is “challenging,” and Benson brought a deep understanding of state statutes and local zoning. He said Benson “struck the right balance” between development and environmental concerns, and mentored the staff well, “imparting a lot of his wisdom” on the staff.
“He always made sure to look out for the environment,” said Rosenthal.
There is “always more to do,” said Rosenthal, who noted that Benson has left the town and the Land Use office staff in a good position to continue that work.
“He helped lead a staff that will take many of his lessons with them,” said Rosenthal. “Those lessons will continue to benefit the town moving forward.”
Associate Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.