State Looking Beyond East Windsor, Willington State Police Firing Range

March 2, 2016

Rebuffed by determined opponents in East Windsor and Willington, agencies planning a new state police firing range want to test residents’ reception in far eastern Connecticut.

In response to inquiries from elected officials and property owners, state officials have planned informational meetings this month in Voluntown, Griswold and Canterbury.

“These meetings will allow state officials to meet with town residents to discuss the project and for residents to express their level of interest in hosting the proposed facility,” the state Department of Administrative Services said in a press release Tuesday.

In an interview later in the day, DAS spokesman Jeffrey Beckham said that at least one property owner in each of the rural towns has offered to sell a large parcel “in relatively remote areas, far away from critical infrastructure such as schools.”

State police say they need a new range because the one near the Farmington River in Simsbury is prone to flooding. The cost to repair damage has been as high as $400,000 from a single swamping, and the chronic flooding has delayed training, state police say.

The state’s site selection process narrowed options to privately owned parcels in Willington and East Windsor, but residents in both towns have fiercely battled the proposal. Opponents say the range would devastate property values, destroy their peace and harm the environment.

Although state officials have not shelved consideration of the East Windsor and Willington sites, Beckham said it’s possible that the site selection process could start anew in the three towns near the Rhode Island border.

Leaders of opposition groups in East Windsor and Willington said the news was encouraging.

“We have been aware for many months that there were communities out there that wanted the project,” Michael Scalzo, head of Not East Windsor, or NEW, said. “Unfortunately it took a lot of trauma from the citizens of East Windsor and Willington to convince them to pursue those other opportunities.”

“We are thrilled the state is looking at new options,” Stephanie Summers of unWillington said, “and if these communities are interested, we wish them well.

“We urge the state to free us quickly from our limbo in its process so we can get on with our lives and the state police can get its training needs met,” Summers said.

Rep. Paul Brycki, a Democrat whose district includes Griswold and Voluntown, said benefits to the town that hosts the range include state payments in lieu of taxes, added police presence in an area that is lightly patrolled now and an economic boost for businesses from the increased traffic. Brycki said he expects residents, who include many gun owners and hunters, will welcome the proposed range.

The cost of the proposed range, however, is still a big factor, and two members of the legislature’s public safety and security committee — Sen. Tim Larson, D-East Hartford, and Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford — have called on state officials to strongly consider using the National Guard firing range in East Haven.

“While I appreciate DAS considering other sites, I continue to believe that as we already have a state facility in East Haven where the Connecticut National Guard trains and that facility is available to the state police for 240 days a year, a new facility is unnecessary,” Guglielmo said Tuesday.

But Beckham said state planners have considered the East Haven range “multiple times.”

“It does not work for the state police,” he said. “It does not meet their training criteria.”

Larson and Guglielmo have scoffed at state officials’ recent claims that the range could be built for $7 million, including land acquisition. Based on recent state construction bids, the range would cost at least four times that amount, the two senators wrote recently in a letter to commissioners of the DAS and state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.

Bills on the proposed range that the two senators have proposed will be the focus of a public hearing Thursday at the Legislative Office Building. One bill would require, in part, that the range be built on “previously purchased state-owned or leased property.” The hearing before the public safety and security committee is set for 11 a.m.

The meetings in Griswold, Canterbury and Voluntown are outside the state’s formal “scoping” process but will include information on potential sites offered in each town and question and answer periods, according to the DAS.

Each meeting is to begin at 7 p.m. The Canterbury session is slated for March 14 in town hall; the Voluntown meeting is set for March 15 at Voluntown Elementary School; and the Griswold meeting is to be held on March 16 at a venue to be determined.