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COG hears of broadband need

GOSHEN — Leaders from across the region gathered on Thursday, Jan. 12, for the first Northwest Hills Council of Governments (NHCOG) of 2023.

The hybrid meeting was held on Zoom and in-person at NHCOG headquarters in Goshen.

Mayors, Selectmen, and experts from the area reported on key topics and outcomes from 2022 as they looked ahead and reviewed plans for the coming year.

Broadband Mapping Coordinator David Lukens from the Geographic Information Systems Office has led data collection efforts for mapping the availability of high-speed internet across the state.

Lukens reported that while the expansion of broadband networks has rapidly increased in Connecticut, progress has been notably slower in the Northwest corner.

The ongoing process of data collection and mapping is being completed as part of the opening phase of two large-scale broadband expansion programs: the Connecticut Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP), funded by ARPA Capital Projects Fund, and the Broadband Equity, Access and Development (BEAD) Program, funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

BEAD is a federal program that guarantees at least $100 million dollars to each state for broadband planning, deployment, mapping, equity and adoption services. The 5-year action plan prioritizes an end-to-end, fiber-optic network with open access.

Connecticut’s BIP has allocated $42.9 million to invest in low-income/multi-family curb-to-home and business broadband infrastructure buildout, with a focus on underserved areas in the state.

Funding from both programs is being released in phases, with BIP funds being released this quarter and the next wave of BEAD funding set for June 30.

While reviewing the NHCOG Legislative Committee Report, discussion commenced on the topic of affordable housing.

Included within the report was a recommendation to “amend 8-30g, the Affordable Housing Appeals Process, to provide towns with greater flexibility to address local planning and zoning issues.”

The amendment would allow towns with populations under 10,000 to reduce the affordable housing goal laid out by Connecticut General Statute 8-30g from 10% to 4-5%.

Gordon Ridgway, first selectman of Cornwall, motioned to remove this recommendation from the report.

“We would like to have more affordable housing, at least in our town, than we have now,” said Ridgway.

The motion received little support and sparked discussion about the topic.

Doug Thompson, first selectman of Burlington, expressed frustration regarding statute 8-30g.

“What I don’t like is the definition of affordable housing is determined by the state,” said Thompson. “If we could soften 8-30g in any way, I would be in favor of it.”

Some members of NHCOG felt the difficulty in expanding affordable housing has been compounded by increased conservation efforts in their towns.

“Finding a place to put affordable housing in our town is exceedingly difficult,” said Henry Todd, first selectman of Falls Village and chair of the NHCOG, as he explained that 80% of land in Falls Village is not suitable for building.

Ridgway added that home prices in Cornwall have increased 50% in the last year, to an average price of $800,000.

“At $800,000 we are pricing out our young people and old people. We’re in a very difficult situation here,” said Ridgway in support of retaining the 10% goal.

Ridgway’s motion received no second, and the recommendation to amend 8-30g remained in the NHCOG Legislative Commitee Report.

The council also reviewed recent statistics for opioid abuse in Litchfield County and discussed best practices for allocation of opioid settlement dollars.

Litchfield County experienced 58 fatal overdoses in 2021, 31 of which occurred in Torrington. Statewide, opioid overdoses have increased due to the prevalence of fentanyl. In 2016, fentanyl represented 53% of overdoses statewide but by 2020 that figure had increased to 85%.

Education, outreach, and distribution of Narcan were identified as best practices to improve the situation moving forward.

Final decisions for the allocation of settlement funds are expected to be made at the next NHCOG meeting, scheduled for Feb. 9.

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