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Noank to vote Wednesday on increased fire district budget and tax rate

Groton — The Noank Fire District Executive Committee will hold its annual meeting Wednesday, with an agenda that includes acting on a proposed budget increase of more than 15% and increasing the tax rate by 0.4 mills.

The meeting will be held in the park next to the firehouse at 7 p.m. and residents are asked to bring their  own chair.

The increase in the proposed budget of $538,942 is mostly due to legal expenses and the fire department budget. The executive committee is requesting a tax rate increase of 0.4 mills, up from 1.28 to 1.68.

The budget for the current fiscal year is $466,187 but expenditures from July 1, 2020, to present are $527,248.32. The budget for the building improvements line item was $5,000 but nearly $105,000 has been expended.

Executive committee member Michael Noel explained that the increase came from replacing the firehouse roof, which is old and was being repaired the last few years. He said the roof was paid for with money in other accounts.

The proposed building improvements line item for the fiscal year starting in July is again $5,000.

The fire district budgeted $15,000 for legal fees in the current fiscal year, has expended $26,976 so far, and is proposing $50,000 in the new budget. Noel said the fire district consults its attorney for different things mainly concerning short-term rentals.

The Noank Fire District Zoning Commission has proposed new regulations on short-term rentals, meaning Airbnb and Vrbo.

Zoning Commission Chairman Rick Smith said nobody asked him about legal expenses, so the $50,000 "must have been the executive committee figuring that's what they'd need."

Elections

The agenda includes nominating and electing one voter of the Noank Fire District to serve on the five-member zoning commission. Smith's seat is open, and he said Monday he is running again.

"It's public service, so doing something for your community is kind of what everybody does it for," Smith said.

In addition to the short-term rental issue and the more routine review of applications, Smith said the commission intends to deal with a zoning regulation about remodeling houses in a flood zone.

It says if the remodeling costs over 10 years are more than 50% of the structure's value, the building must be made compliant with Federal Emergency Management Agency rules, which Smith said can be very expensive. The zoning commission is looking at reducing the 10-year period, so homeowners can do remodeling in pieces.

Gabriella "Gabi" Smillie decided a few weeks ago to throw her name in for this seat. The former attorney moved from Los Angeles to Noank about three years ago with her husband and two kids, ages 11 and 9.

She said they decided to rent out their home last summer, after her husband lost clients when the pandemic hit, and "the income that we received from that rental saved us." A group of short-term rental operators and supporters reached out, and as Smillie learned about the proposed regulations, she was troubled but what she sees as an infringement upon individual property rights.

She added, "A lot of residents in this community are very unhappy with the way the zoning board commissioners have run the commission. There are a lot of complaints with respect to onerous and oppressive regulations."

Asked for a response to this statement, Smith said, "She's entitled to her opinion."

Smillie said she does not plan on recusing herself from short-term rentals votes if elected, as she doesn't think being an STR operator is a conflict of interest.

The special meeting agenda also includes nominating and electing two members of the park commission and up to five members to serve as alternates on the zoning commission. Any newly elected members will start after July 1, Smith said.

Another agenda item is a motion to provide residential trash collection in the Noank Fire District, which would be funded by an annual fee not to exceed $300 per household.

Some residents were surprised to learn that the annual meeting was set for Wednesday instead of June 22, which was the date originally set by the executive committee. The committee moved the date after the fire district attorney said that Gov. Ned Lamont's COVID-19 executive order last year enabling executive committees to pass a budget without a public meeting was no longer in effect. Noel said the meeting was moved to Wednesday because the bylaws state the annual meeting is to be held the third Tuesday in May. By the time the executive committee received the guidance there was not enough time to legally advertise the meeting for Tuesday.  

e.moser@theday.com

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