It may be more like a marriage of convenience than a match made in heaven, but most town leaders in the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) agree it’s better than being forced into a pre-arranged one.

SWRPA members voted 15-2 Monday night, Sept. 9, to support a resolution to merge the regional planning agency with its neighbor to the north, the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials (HVCEO).

The merger is being done pre-emptively to avoid a forced merger by the state that might not be as beneficial to towns in the region. The state has also offered a financial incentive for organizations to merge: $125,000 to each group.

SWRPA currently consists of chief elected officials and appointed representatives from Wilton, Weston, New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, and Westport.

HVCEO is another planning council that includes 10 towns to the north: Ridgefield, Redding, Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, and Sherman.

Planning agencies focus on regional issues such as business climate and transportation. Working together, the regions try to prioritize needs and then apply for state and federal grants to help fund regional projects.

However, a state initiative passed by the legislature during the last session is forcing the state’s 13 planning agencies (until recently it was 14) to merge into no more than eight, with a minimum of 14 municipalities per region; and metropolitan planning organizations (groups made up of the chief elected officials in planning agency member towns) must be reduced from the current 10 to five. If regions do not merge into larger councils of governments (another type of planning agency known as COGs), they risk losing funding.

David LeVasseur, undersecretary of the state Office of Policy Management, has been meeting with planning agencies such as SWRPA. He is required to submit a preliminary report by Oct. 1, and a final by Jan. 1, 2014, giving his recommendations on the best breakdown of regions.

Under the state initiative, regional organizations that merge by mutual agreement by the end of 2013 are more likely to be exempt from impending restructuring by the state.

Proactive

The consensus among most chief elected officials is that it is better to be proactive and to figure out before the OPM’s deadline who they want to join with to form a larger council of governments before the state makes the decision for them.

Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan attended the SWRPA meeting to speak in favor of the merger. He told The Bulletin Wednesday there are many positive reasons for SWRPA and HVCEO to join forces.

“When we had the FAA threat of changing flight patterns (in 2008) we worked very closely with HVCEO on that,” he said. “That lasted almost two years. We worked well when we were fighting the battle of Super 7. They are equally against any type of major highway coming through. We are working together to create the Norwalk River Valley Trail. We have a very good rapport with this organization.”

Now that SWRPA has passed a resolution supporting “the desirability of a merger” with HVCEO, it’s up to HVCEO to agree.

At HVCEO’s last meeting Aug. 28, the group discussed the possibility of merging with SWRPA. No decision was made, but it was apparent most members felt SWRPA was a better match than other alternatives.

According to minutes, a concern raised at the Aug. 28 meeting was that a merger with the southwestern “Gold Coast” group “might see future transportation resources focused on the I-95/Rt. 1/Merritt Parkway corridors, to the detriment of the needs of the I-84/Upper R. 7/Danbury Branch corridors.”

However, HVCEO members seemed to be leaning toward a merger with SWRPA, mainly because it is running out of other options.

The topic is expected to be discussed again at the HVCEO’s next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 19, at 12:30 in its offices in Brookfield.

A merger would have no immediate effect on Wilton, Mr. Brennan said, but ultimately by joining forces “we will have more funds from the state and will be stronger in terms of a voice.

“Initially, we felt we really didn’t want to join with anybody,” he said, “ and that’s the position HVCEO took. But it was not an option.”