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After years of unsuccessful negotiations, the Board of Selectmen (BOS) is now considering more dramatic action to finally complete the first phase of the Downtown Center Project. At a recent meeting, selectmen approved moving forward with eminent domain proceedings, allowing the town to take private land for public use without the property owners’ consent, since easement negotiations have fallen apart.
Phase I of the Downtown Center project, which began in fall 2015, included renovations of the sidewalks and the center median. Additionally, new light poles, tree grates, and bike racks were installed above new underground utilities and irrigation. The town cut a ribbon announcing the completion of this phase in June 2016.
However the project still has a few items left to go including taking down the old telephone poles in the downtown area and burying all of the associated electrical lines. The issue has to do with getting easements from two property owners in the downtown area to remove the poles. The electrical infrastructure was put in at the beginning of the project, but for Eversource to pull the wires and take down the old poles, it needs the property owner easements in place.
An easement grants the legal right to use the property, though the legal title to the land itself remains with the owner of the land. Commonly, easements are granted to utility companies to run power lines and cable lines.
“We have been trying to get these easements for over two years now and they should have been secured prior to the project beginning,” said First Selectman Tom Banisch. “It’s unfortunate that they weren’t, but that’s years ago now. We have all of the infrastructure embedded in the street and in the driveways and everything else, so this wasn’t the right way to do things. This is why the property owners have been able to basically hold us hostage.”
Banisch said the two properties in question are 703 Boston Post Road, where a dress store is located, and 725 Boston Post Road, where Café Allegre. He noted the issue is not with the tenants, who are renting space in the buildings. Rather, he said, the problem is with the property owners themselves—Roton Associates and Obrien Marsillio Family Trust.
Neither party had responded to a request for comment at press time.
Banisch said the town is seeking an easement for a parcel of land behind the building at 725 Boston Post Road and is seeking a series of easements going up the drive way and around the back of the building located at 703 Boston Post Road.
Assistant Town Engineer Rob Russo explained to the board the problems and adjustments the town went through to try to secure the easements. Those adjustments included offering to move equipment, changes to easement language, and even the town agreeing to hold harmless agreements if there should be an issue with the Eversource equipment.
“What I have tried to do since taking on the responsibility of trying to get this accomplished is establish a really cordial working relationship with the property owners,” he said. “We have met multiple times out there and I have tried to see it from their point of view as they have tried to see it from ours and we have had a good relationship and we have tried to work things through, but unfortunately no resolution.”
Banisch said both the town and Eversource have reached the end of what they could offer the property owners to make the easements work. He said it has been a frustrating process.
“In the process of putting the infrastructure in there, we paved the property owners’ entire parking lot and their driveway at no expense to them,” said Banisch, referring to the property at 703 Boston Post Road. “That was done four years ago. They have gotten a brand new parking lot and I think it was done with the expectation that it was a quid-pro-quo. If we are going to do your driveway, you are going to give us the easement.”
According to Banisch, Eversource tried to come up with another plan to try to pull the wires, but it would be significantly more costly. He said the property owner has also not been forthcoming on what it wants or needs to agree to an easement.
“They have basically tied us up for two years and we need to do something,” he said. “I won’t speculate on what their reasons are. I mean, I have spoken with them and they seem like extremely nice people and none of this makes any sense.”
Selectman agreed it seemed like every other option has been exhausted. The board approved moving forward with eminent domain proceedings. Final approval is needed at Town Meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.
“It has to be approved by town meeting,” said Banisch. “Then we have to get some appraisals of the property so that we can determine what we would need for compensation.”
Banisch made it clear that the town isn’t looking to take the whole property, just the part of land needed for the easement. Selectman Al Goldberg asked that the town keep trying to talk with the property owners as this issue moves to town meeting.
Selectman asked what successfully obtaining the easements, either by negotiation of eminent domain, means for the project.
“The successful completion of this would allow us to remove all of the poles and cut over the power under the ground to the entire north side,” said Russo.