State accepts planning region consolidation

The Office of Policy and Management has officially re-designated the South Western and Housatonic Valley planning regions into one new one, the Western Connecticut Council of Governments — but it’s not all that happy about it.

In a letter dated Dec. 6, Benjamin Barnes, secretary of the OPM, said he received the request from the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA), to which Wilton belongs, and the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials (HVCEO) to the north to merge into a single 18-town planning region.

The merger came about because of a new state statute requiring the consolidation of Connecticut’s 13 regional planning agencies into no more than eight by 2014. If regions do not merge into larger councils of governments (a type of planning agency), they risk losing funding for things like economic development initiatives and regional transportation projects.

A provision of the statute allows regional organizations that merge by mutual agreement into a single council of governments (COG) by the end of 2013 to be exempt from restructuring by the state, as long as the secretary of OPM formally re-designates the consolidated region.

In his letter to the chairmen and directors of SWRPA and HVCEO, Mr. Barnes did just that, formally acknowledging the Western Connecticut planning region, officially known as the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WCCOG).

Not optimal

However, Mr. Barnes also states in the letter this is not what the state considers to be the best alternative.

“You should know that this office believes that the optimal region serving Western Connecticut should also include the current Greater Bridgeport planning region [GBRC] as well,” Mr. Barnes said in his letter. He cites “strong ties … in matters affecting transportation, the environment, housing patterns, commuting patterns, and the local perceptions of social and historical and cultural ties.”

Because of this, Mr. Barnes said, “I hope that the municipalities of [WCCOG] would consider a further voluntary merger with all of the towns currently located in the Greater Bridgeport region.”

The new WCCOG now includes the old SWRPA towns of Weston, Wilton, New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, and Westport, and the old HVCEO towns of Ridgefield, Redding, Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, and Sherman.

The Bridgeport region is made up of Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford, and Trumbull.

Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan said he thinks it’s unlikely WCCOG will voluntarily merge with the Bridgeport region. GBRC had already submitted a letter to the OPM stating its desire to merge with SWRPA before the consolidation with HVCEO was completed, and both SWRPA and HVCEO opted to merge only with each other.

“A merger is complicated enough when you are doing it with just two parties,” Mr. Brennan said. Adding a third would make it “geometrically” more difficult he said. He said SWRPA and HVCEO were “very comfortable” with the merger and it fully meets state objectives.

“The main thing is, we’ve got an official letter from OPM approving the merger,” he said. “That’s basically what we’re going on.”

Not set in stone

But the newly consolidated regions are still not set in stone. And just because WCCOG doesn’t merge voluntarily with the Bridgeport region, it doesn’t necessarily mean the merger might not happen anyway — at least with some of the towns in GBRC.

When the OPM completes its analysis of logical planning region designations, chief executive officers of any municipality may appeal the proposed re-designation by petitioning the OPM secretary. The secretary has 60 days after meeting with the legislative body of the petitioning municipality to make a final determination concerning the proposed re-designation.

If any town in the Bridgeport region were to petition to join WCCOG, it is unclear whether the secretary could unilaterally decide to add it to the Western region.

Complicated enough

“We feel this is a final decision,” Mr. Brennan said, adding that joining the two organizations is complicated enough. “I don’t sense any interest in trying to complicate things.

“We are very comfortable with HVCEO because we have worked with them in the past,” he continued, citing opposing FAA plans to reroute flight paths over this area as one example and promoting the Norwalk River Valley Trail, which would go from Norwalk to Danbury, as a current effort.

Wilton will have to work out an ordinance change in order to officially become part of WCCOG. Mr. Brennan said he will present the matter to the Board of Selectmen in early 2014.

WCCOG members are still working out the logistics of merging two distinct agencies with different organizational structures into one with yet another structure — SWRPA was a regional planning agency headed up by non-elected land-use officials while HVCEO was a council of elected officials, and WCCOG will be a council of governments. A council of governments involves the direct participation of the municipal CEOs in the decision-making process.

So far, a draft of bylaws has been created and there are subcommittees to work on things like office location, human resources, regional planning, and finance issues. Mr. Brennan said given the breadth of the area involved, it is likely meetings will be held at different locations throughout the year.

However, Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi is suggesting the planning agency establish an office in the Georgetown area, which encompasses protions of Ridgefield, Redding, Weston and Wilton.  Currently the Housatonic Council’s office is in Brookfield, and the Southwestern agency is in Stamford.

There is a geographic argument to be made in support of his proposal: Georgetown is where southernmost Housatonic towns, Ridgefield and Redding, meet with the northernmost towns of the Southwestern area, Wilton Weston.

Those most affected by a move would be the two agencies’ staffs. The Housatonic group has three full-time and two part-time employees. The Southwestern group has more.

The new Western Connecticut Council is trying to complete its merger process by the end of the fiscal year — June 30, 2014. The state’s re-designation of regions is to be completed by Jan. 1, 2015.

— Macklin Reid contributed

to this story.