Prior to the meeting, citizens garnered 204 signatures to successfully petition the vote to a referendum to be held on Feb. 4 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Monroe Senior Center, 235 Cutlers Farm Road. The schools will not be available as polling places.
"People have every right in the world to petition this to referendum," First Selectman Steve Vavrek said. "But when I asked people, 'Did you know it was going to be voted on at a Town Meeting? ... Did you know it dates back two years?' They said, 'No.' I ask you to know what you're signing before you sign it."
The project includes drainage improvements, replacement of a culvert, a "vertical alignment" for a flatter approach to the intersection with Main Street — which would have a new right turn lane, a minor widening of the road and moving a section of the Rail Trail off the roadway, according to Town Land Use Dir. and Engineer Scott Schatzlein.
The reconstruction would cover 4,500 linear feet on the section of Pepper Street from Jockey Hollow Road to Cambridge Drive.
Schatzlein said the town applied to the Connecticut Department of Transportation in 2011, adding he made a public presentation in 2012, which was well-received by those who attended.
He said the project is needed to comply with the town's Plan of Conservation & Development by making the road capable of handling the commercial zoning in the area.
"The town is responsible to provide infrastructure to support that zone change," Schatzlein said. "You just can't change a zone and expect businesses to come in without changing the infrastructure to support it."
Vavrek said local business owners in the area need for the project to get done.
"Our community needs this to be done," he said. "This is good for economic development."
The executive director of the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council, Brian T. Bidolli, and the project engineering consultant also made presentations before the floor was opened to the public.
Schatzlein said only roads determined to have regional resources and value are eligible for the federal funding. If Monroe decides not to take advantage of it, he said other towns that competed for the funds will accept it for their own benefit.
Patrick O'Hara, who is chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission, noted how humps are being taken out of the road to improve sight lines near the Panthers' Den, a recreation center frequented by young people and families.
Another aspect of the project O'Hara spoke in favor of is moving hikers on the Rail Trail off of Pepper Street and safely onto a path off the road.
Town Councilman Tony Unger, who is chairman of the council's public works subcommittee, said the Town Council spent two months looking at the data. Of his bipartisan committee, Unger said both Democrats and Republicans joined in an anonymous vote to move the project forward.
Steve Schapiro, a resident, said he's all for improvement of Pepper Street and for economic development, but he said it's confusing for people to see the town spend around $6.3 million for all roads over the past few years, then propose to spend $5 million for 4,500 linear feet of one road.
Schatzlein agreed that $5 million would cover a lot of paving, however, he said the Pepper Street project goes beyond paving, adding a five to six foot elevation would be removed from a portion of the road — which would require replacement of a water main. And the project would include moving and re-installing utility poles, installation of a new box culvert, widening and drainage improvements.
Debra Dutches, who is a member of the Board of Finance, said though there are estimates for the project to cost $5,051,500, the town would be bonding for $5,050,000. "I don't want there to be an issue with the difference," she said.
John Roberge of ]Jockey Hollow Road expressed his belief that heavier truck traffic will have negative impacts on the environment and widening Pepper Street will encourage speeding in residential neighborhoods. He asked what guarantees residents have of health and safety.
"I feel like I'm at a David Copperfield show with what I've been presented and what's been going on," Roberge said, referring to the famous magician.
Ronald Bunovsky said Monroe could use the money, but not for the Pepper Street project. He said the road is fine for residents to drive on, adding the proposed improvements are meant for commercial trucks. Bunovsky said the town has deteriorated steadily over last 40 years as over-development encroaches upon the Pequonnock River, which is a public watershed.
"Monroe's best value is as a residential, bedroom community and we're allowing it to deteriorate," Bunovsky said. "People don't come here for an industrial park."
He said bringing more trucks to Main Street damages the roads and lowers property values. Bunovsky would rather money be spent on improving conditions on Moose Hill Road.
Bidolli said other roads will be gotten to, adding a portion of Moose Hill Road is currently being worked on on the Trumbull side.
Ernie LaFollette, chairman of the Monroe Citizen Audit Committee, wanted more public information to be released ahead of the bonding request and he also questioned the logic of the town bonding for the entire amount, then trusting the federal and state governments to pay it back.
Leon Ambrosey spoke in favor of the project, but said he didn't think townspeople were well aware of the project, the cost and the reimbursement. "Are we guaranteed to get these funds back?" he asked. "What if the state makes cuts?"
Bidolli said the money has already been set aside and cannot be used for something else.
Nick Kapoor, the Democratic Town Committee chairman, noted how he's had "spats" with First Selectman Steve Vavrek in the past, then added, "I am very happy to support him and this project 100 percent. I will be very happy to vote for this project next week and I hope others do too."
A 'Gift Horse'
Local developers and Monroe residents, John Kimball and Bernie Sippin are at odds when it comes to the Pepper Street Improvement Project. Kimball, who owns a business park in the area, is for it and Sippin opposes it so strongly that he wrote a letter to the editor expressing his opinion in the Monroe Courier.
Kimball said, "There's a lot of talk of how my company will benefit directly and we should be paying for the improvements." But he said the project is for the safety of the drivers of the 4,000 cars that travel Pepper Street every day.
He also named a few other companies in the area, who pay taxes every year, while having to endure poor road conditions.
"This goes back to 1960, before I was in this town," Kimball said. "I didn't come to this town to take over as a robber baron. The tax revenue from the economic development will make this a drop in the bucket."
Other benefits Kimball touted were the safety improvements for the Rail Trail and drainage improvements that would have to follow up to date environmental rules.
"Let's not make this mountain into a molehill," Kimball said. "Let's not keep kicking the state to the curb. We take them to the dance then back out at the 11th hour."
He said one example was with the proposed widening of Route 111 years ago.
"If we tell the DOT no at this point, we might as well stop asking the DOT for improvements," Kimball said. "This is a gift to the town and we're looking a gift horse in the mouth."
Bidolli agreed that the DOT is reluctant to work with towns that cause issues with funding, because the department wants to be able to spend the money when it's available.
Sippin said, "If Mr. Kimball thinks for one moment I'm against development in this town, he's wrong. I am development in this town. I pay over $1 million in taxes to this town. I've been here 85 years."
When Kimball's projects "run against" his, Sippin said he opposes them, adding that anyone in the same situation would.
"I think that street's in good shape," Sippin said. "I don't think we have to fix it up. I don't think we have to spend $5 million there."
Sippin pointed out that a number of buildings there are empty and asked why they are not filling up.
He also disagreed that the federal and state funds are a gift to the town.
"That federal and Connecticut money is coming out of your pocket," he said. "I think it's a waste of money. I think there are other things in Monroe it could be spent on."