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Trumbull's Conservation and Development Plan: Charette or Charade?

A recent public session was 'weakly attended but interesting.'

Trumbull's new Director of Planning Jamie Bratt hosted a weakly attended but interesting community input session to revise and update the state mandated Plan of Conservation and Development on September 24.

True to what appears to be Trumbull practice, the meeting was too short and too limited, but served its nominal purpose – the public did offer its input.

To this writer the question is whether this was a charette or a charade. A charette is a focused planning process that brings together a full range of stakeholders in intensive sessions to develop plans for their community.

The session started with the 100 or so participants (not a strong representation in this community of 35,000 residents, 13,000 households and one of the highest voter registration and turn out percentages in the state) placing stickers on three separate maps – one denoting their residence, a second to show locations in town they liked and a third, areas they would like to see changed.

Participants were also asked to provide their priorities to the planners by placing “Planning Dollars” they had been given into one of about eight boxes, each for a different idea – infrastructure, open space, and the like.

A moderator from Planimetrics, an Avon, CT municipal planning consultant, then hustled participants through a structured series of topics about what they liked, what they didn't and how they had allocated their dollars.

It was hard to know whether the moderator's haste was because she had been told that Trumbull audiences just don't stay for long meetings (the initial “crowd” had thinned substantially by the meeting's 9:00 p.m. conclusion), or that the session was simply a charade – a “let them eat cake” moment – for a process that has already determined what this iteration of the plan, which must be updated every ten years, will include.

On the substantive side, Trumbull, like every old community, is, to some degree, a prisoner of its past decisions. One example is that many years ago town fathers decided to place commercial development at the corners of the town, and away from residential areas. While energetic economic development has given home owners relief in the form of a strong and growing commercial Grand List, we have no meaningful downtown - not like New Canaan or Westport, or even Wilton, Greenwich or Fairfield.

To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there,” unless either of the malls passes your test.

The closest alternative is Trumbull Center, which, as one participant noted, is private property. What its owner wants is what we get. If the community doesn't like it, we have no option but to spend our dollars elsewhere as we bemoan the lack of something either different or better (this is not to imply that I am wiser than the center's owner, or that I would do anything different, this is simply a statement of fact).

Beyond working with its owner, there is nearly nothing the town can do to bring about change, even based on community generated decisions. Yet there was no significant discussion about creating an alternative or additional family friendly commercial district that would bring out Trumbullites and attract people from other towns.

But my problem goes to the process side, to the way the “community” could develop the plan. The current administration has a penchant for closed processes whose outcomes are meant to serve their own political ends. Will this be different?

The manner in which the Charter Revision and Redistricting were rushed through on the backs of stacked Republican committees benefited that party, but not the community as a whole. In both cases Republican ideas became the agenda. There was no meaningful give and take. The Republicans simply waited out the Democrats and prevailed on pure numerical superiority.

Well, not entirely. The Town Council came to its senses when one of the charter revision proposals would have gutted the council as we know it. As organization theory dictates, as a last resort, an organization under stress rises to save itself. And so they did.

But Trumbull's history tells us the worm will turn, the Democrats will return to power and the advantage will then be theirs.

It must be noted that the soon to be tested redistricting plan is a giant stride away from the trend toward making voting easier. Most voters will have to find new voting stations this November, they will be greeted by huge ballots (huge means longer, larger, more complicated, more expensive to print and requiring more time to complete), lines will be longer than ever, parking will be harder to find and many citizens with limited mobility may well find themselves disenfranchised.

The concert fiasco is another close-to-the-vest Republican misadventure. The First Selectman was authorized $60,000 to stage a concert by a submissive town council, over the unanimous objection of the finance board. To that he added another $54,000, plus, of town funds without any visible authorization (or does the charter allow a first selectman to use the town's General Fund, the repository of taxpayer monies, as a personal piggy bank, to be broken into whenever it suits him?).

The outcome was not a pretty picture. Our fiscally conservative First Selectman apparently offered the performer a Hell or High Water contract – he was paid the lion's share of $60,000 not to perform. Further, the First Selectman subjected the town to a potential cost of as much as $190,000 – well above the $60,000 the finance board denied him.

Meanwhile, we have two significantly underfunded town employee pension plans and the schools rebuild 12 year old desktop computers.

Monday's discussion included nothing about Trumbull's schools - as an education system, not as a bunch of buildings occupying otherwise open spaces.  There was also no discussion about the loss of the soon to open Fairchild-Wheeler Charter High School on 49 acres of what was once Trumbull, nor of an annual $1.2 million savings our schools would have realized because we were hosting the new school.

Likewise, there was no mention of the shopping center under development on the northwest corner of Routes 111 and 25. No doubt the First Selectman will claim this as a prize next fall.

I don't mean this to be a rant, but rather commentary and a question – will the community plan for its future, or will the “in crowd” once again act solely in its interest, and so snatch what should be the public's prerogative away?

I'd like to be optimistic, to hope the process will be opened up, that we'll have a broad-based community committee that truly evaluates the town's options – including the economic trade offs – and so creates a better Trumbull for all.

Time will tell if such optimism is warranted.

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