Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Local News

Madison Seeks Funds to Finish Downtown Center Project

The long-running downtown center project is taking “baby steps” forward, according to First Selectman Peggy Lyons, with $355,000 being proposed to finish the Phase 1 portion of the project sometime next fiscal year.

Lyons said many aspects of the project are still up in the air, including some easements and possible funding from power company Eversource. But, she said, adding the project to the town’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for fiscal year 2021-’22 is a concrete step that might also make the project eligible for more grants in the future.

The money has not yet been approved, but including the money in the plan will be discussed this week and next week, according to Lyons. The final step of Phase 1 includes connecting businesses to underground power lines and bringing down telephone poles along Boston Post Road downtown, and not a previously discussed plan to stretch the project all the way to Route 79 to the south.

A substantial portion of Phase 1, including the installation of light poles, sidewalks, and the Post Road center median was completed in 2016, though the town has struggled to check off the last couple items to fully finish it—primarily getting overhead electrical poles removed.

Last year, Lyons said she discovered that these costs had not been fully budgeted for. Multiple town officials have stated that the power company Eversource had agreed to cover some costs, and Lyons said she had spoken recently to former state representative Noreen Kokoruda and been told Eversource planned to honor its verbal commitment to do so.

Lyons said she was expecting a letter from Eversource confirming that, as well as, she hopes, confirming the extent of its contribution, though as of Jan. 4 she had not received that letter.

Previously, Kokoruda had helped secure around $1.85 million in state grants for the project through its major construction phase. The town has already spent just under $1 million beyond that in the form of special appropriations and planning reserve funds, according to Lyons, around $330,000 over an original 2015 estimate.

Lyons said that though the pandemic might have lowered the priority for finishing the project in 2021, she thought that placing the project on CIP would give it needed momentum.

“I think having the funding in place will really help accelerate things also,” she said. “It puts more pressure...to get this completed.”

Another stumbling block has been three easements with two property owners downtown needed to install equipment that will allow Eversource to hook up underground power lines to the buildings. Lyons said the town is optimistic about these negotiations, with one property owner on the south side of the road likely to sign off soon, and negotiations with the other property owner showing “progress.”

The north side property owner, a company called Roton Associates owned by Tony Astmann, has been involved in negotiating the easement with little success and multiple misfires over at least four years. Former first selectman Tom Banisch in early 2019 began eminent domain proceedings against Astmann, which would have allowed the installation of the equipment unilaterally, but that process was stopped later in the year after a tentative agreement was reached.

That agreement fell apart over the summer, however, according to town officials. Lyons said there has been a “back and forth” between the town and Astmann over the last couple months, and “some movement on both sides,” saying that she wasn’t planning on “going down the eminent domain route” as of right now.

If everything goes well and money is approved for next fiscal year (which begins this July), Lyons said the town would still have to bid out electrical work to hook up buildings to underground wire.

“It wouldn’t be just turn a switch and have it done. It will take a little time,” she said.

It isn’t clear exactly how much of the work Eversource might cover, Lyons said, though she lauded Kokoruda for continuing to follow up with the power company. Likewise grant money is also uncertain, though Lyons said that having the project officially added to the town’s capital plan could help its eligibility for some grants.

What had originally been called Phase 2, which would extend brick sidewalks all the way to Route 79 among other things, will require another significant investment as well as a “redesign” and “additional planning,” Lyons said. Getting the poles down, however, is something much more within reach, she added, and also something a lot of residents still want to see.

“For the property owners, this is a positive for them,” Lyons said. “When you think about just the attractiveness of downtown without these poles—I think it’s going to be a value enhancer for a lot of the downtown businesses.”

Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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