Wilton’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) squeezed in one final meeting yesterday (Wednesday, June 28) just before the current fiscal year ends on June 30. The special meeting resulted in board decisions on several matters, including plans for the Merwin Meadows playground renovation, two new appointments to the Economic Development Commission, and more.

The board also discussed a new topic: the concept of Wilton having a “sister city” in Ukraine. While several Fairfield County towns have already become sister cities with Ukrainian counterparts, at least three of Wilton’s selectmen (including First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice) raised questions and expressed reservations about initiating such a program in Wilton.

The June 28 meeting also provided new information on the Town’s lease agreement at Allen’s Meadow and a final call for public comment on the proposed cell tower on Middlebrook Rd.

Merwin Meadows Playground Renovation

Following the recommendation of the Parks and Recreation Commission less than one week ago, the selectmen unanimously voted to proceed with a contract for renovations of the Merwin Meadows playground, subject to approval by town counsel.

The long-awaited project — with a $175,000 budget approved by the BOS last year — will include a complete overhaul of the playground aimed at 5- to 12-year-olds, with a “refresh” (clean, paint and wax) of the playscape for younger children.

Vanderslice said the Town is aiming to finalize details of the contract quickly, with installation in the fall.

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Two Key Updates: Allen’s Meadow Lease and Proposed Verizon Tower

Vanderslice told the selectmen the updated, 30-year lease for the state-owned land at Allen’s Meadow, which includes the Community Garden, must be approved by a Town Meeting vote.

“I’ve spoken with both of the registrars,” Vanderslice said. “We’re going to do that [vote] in September.”

Vanderslice also offered a reminder that the public hearing on the Verizon cell tower proposal, currently in the final stages of review by the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC), will take place via Zoom this evening, Thursday, June 29; the evidentiary hearing begins at 2 p.m. and public comment will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Vanderslice is expected to speak at the public hearing in favor of the proposal.

Information on the hearing, including how to access the meeting remotely, is available on the State of Connecticut/CSC website.

A sign bearing the notice for the public hearing on Verizon’s proposed cell tower at Wilton’s bus barn is posted on School Rd. by the bus barn driveway. Credit: GOOD Morning Wilton

A Sister City for Wilton?

Selectman Ross Tartell updated the board on his efforts to explore what several nearby cities and towns have done to develop “sister city” relationships in Ukraine. (Vanderslice had previously asked Tartell to make inquiries into the matter because he proposed it.)

Tartell said he had spoken with individuals in several of the towns currently participating in the sister city initiative, which include Westport, Fairfield, Easton, Weston, Greenwich and Stamford.

The program is coordinated by Ukraine Aid International, a Westport-based nonprofit dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to the citizens of Ukraine.

“This is new,” Tartell began. “It really got rolling in January of 2023.”

“The municipalities that got involved were really enthusiastic,” Tartell continued. “I was surprised at the level of energy they felt. They felt it was a big win for their municipalities. The local citizens were excited.”

Tartell describe how the leadership of those towns took the initiative to become sister cities. His comment that “it’s really up to the first selectperson or the mayor to define the relationship” elicited strong pushback from Wilton’s first selectwoman.

“The bottom line is, none of these municipalities has a policy, as was recommended by Ira [Bloom, Wilton’s Town Counsel],” Vanderslice said. “They don’t have a policy for how to choose what cities to have a sister city relationship with.”

Vanderslice said she “wasn’t surprised” the other municipalities didn’t have policies, but emphasized that a sister city policy is very much needed — just like policies for flying flags, issuing proclamations, and other actions at the board’s discretion.

At least two members of the board —Bas Nabulsi and Kim Healy — said they agreed with Vanderslice’s assertion that a policy should be adopted before proceeding.

Vanderslice expressed views on a number of additional concerns she sees for the program:

  • Timing: Vanderslice said that starting a relationship with another mayor when she is near the end of her term didn’t seem like a good idea, and any decision about the sister city program should be delayed until a new first selectperson is elected this fall.
  • Fundraising: Vanderslice said she is “uncomfortable” with a program initiated by the BOS that would involve fundraising for a private entity.
  • Resident interest: Vanderslice said she had not heard widespread interest from residents in such a program.

Without agreeing to specific next steps, the board agreed to allow time to gauge whether resident interest exists.

They didn’t have to wait long to hear from one resident. Former first selectman Paul Hannah, who had seen a presentation by the founders of Ukraine Aid International at a Wilton Kiwanis meeting, asked to speak at the BOS meeting.

“What they’ve done is really amazing. They’ve done a tremendous amount of good,” Hannah told the selectmen. “I think it’s a good idea. I would encourage you, if it needs a policy, to write the policy [and then] vote on whether you want to do it or not.”

Weston Kick-off

Coincidentally, at the same time Wilton’s selectmen were discussing the topic, the Town of Weston officially kicked off its sister-city relationship with the small Ukrainian city of Siversk, at a 5:00 p.m. ceremony at Weston Town Hall.

Weston’s First Selectwoman Samantha Nestor had authorized a Memo of Understanding in which the sister cities agreed to, among other things:

  • “recognize the importance of cooperation and exchange of expertise and experiences between the two cities, and will encourage visits, exchanges, and joint initiatives by their respective citizens, institutions, and organizations”
  • “commit to exploring ways in which their respective cities can support each other, including through the sharing of best practices and expertise in areas such as community development, infrastructure, and municipal governance”

As explained by Nestor, the relationship between Nestor and Siversk’s mayor Alexey Vorobyov “[focuses] on friendship and cultural exchange” while “the other aspect of the Sister City program is a private partnership where our community supports theirs.”

The dual components of the program — one which involves a relationship between the town leaders and one that involves private fundraising efforts — is at the crux of Vanderslice’s concern about the program.

After the BOS meeting, Vanderslice emailed the board members with additional details on Weston’s program, which suggest that Weston town officials are actively promoting the private fundraising efforts by posting a QR code on the Town website along with language that outlines the fundraising needs — which include trucks, armored vehicles, washing machines and water filtration systems in “Phase 1.”

In the same email to the BOS, Vanderslice noted that the organization behind the Sister City program has a short history.

“As Ross noted, Ukraine Aid International is relatively new. Their IRS determination letter is dated June 27, 2022.  As such, they have yet to file a year-end tax return with the IRS, nor will they have had a financial audit,” Vanderslice wrote.

More BOS News

Vanderslice took the opportunity to publicly express support for Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

Citing a recently published report about new housing permits in 2022, Vanderslice said Wilton ranked seventh in the state, with 187 net new housing units. Norwalk and Fairfield were also among the highest ranked. She also cited WestCOG data that showed the region’s strength in developing housing units relative to its population.

“Just a little shoutout to the Planning and Zoning Commission that gets a lot of grief,” Vanderslice said. “I do think there’s people out there that don’t understand the highest rate of growth in multifamily units is happening in Fairfield County… I do feel the [commission] sometimes gets beaten up unfairly because people don’t have facts.”

The BOS also made the following decisions:

  • With a unanimous vote, the board appointed Donna Peterson and Joe Favarolo to the Economic Development Commission, raising the membership to seven commissioners.
  • Town Administrator Matt Knickerbocker sought the board’s approval for the grant application that helps Wilton pay for drivers in the Dial-a-Ride program. The state’s Elderly and Disabled Demand Responsive Municipal Grant Program provides grants for transportation programs for seniors and people with disabilities. The board unanimously approved the application.
  • The board evaluated a renewal agreement for the state Partnership Plan 2.0 for medical and pharmacy benefits for employees of the Town of Wilton. Knickerbocker called the plan “the best deal in the marketplace for our employees.” The board unanimously approved the agreement.
  • The board voted unanimously to approve a change in the Town’s liability, auto and property (LAP) insurance, with a competitive proposal from CIRMA in a municipal insurance pool. Wilton already contracts with CIRMA for workers’ compensation insurance. Knickerbocker said adding the LAP contract with CIRMA resulted in” “significant savings” as well as having the benefit of a three-year rate stabilization agreement.