Community News

Friends of the Meadow Get Down to Work

The new Friends of the Meadow Committee held its inaugural meeting Tuesday evening and tackled the task of restoring the five-acre parcel to its pride of place in the town’s center. 

City Meadow, a pasture for cattle in the 19th century, has been an ongoing project for the community since 2011. It was first envisioned as a stormwater collection system to prevent pollution from reaching the Blackberry River, but a more inclusive vision unfolded as residents imagined a natural landscape connecting Station Place and Shephard Road, complete with a boardwalk and observation deck. 

A stormwater treatment plan was developed, invasives were removed and handicap accessible boardwalks were established. More recently, Robertson Plaza was expanded with stairs leading down to City Meadow’s walkways.

But the area has again become overrun with invasive plants, predominately phragmites and cattails. The Friends group, which replaced the former City Meadow Committee, will seek to reverse this trend and enhance the Meadow’s role in the social life of the community.

Elizabeth Borden and George Cronin, co-chairs of the new committee, are joined by members Molly Ackerly, Lisa Atkin, Martyn Banks, Michael Selleck and Doreen Kelly. 

Members were asked Tuesday to share their visions of what role City Meadow should play in the town’s future. The suggestions—that it be a sanctuary for flora and fauna, become part of the evolving sculpture trail, and be used for educational purposes and as a backdrop for music and other forms of entertainment—maybe you can find some realistic phrase, like “go well beyond its its original role of filtering storm water pollutants. 

Guest Steve Melville said it should become a magnet to draw people to Norfolk. He suggested that stores open onto the Meadow.

Work on the Meadow is to begin soon. First Selectman Matt Riiska said he got a five-year extension of the Inland Wetlands Agency’s permit for the site and that invasive vegetation will be cut within two weeks. In June, when the vegetation begins to put out new shoots, representatives of the firm Native Habitat Restoration will apply herbicide. It will take several years to eradicate the invasives. 

Trees will be cut down and Riiska will consult with holistic land care expert Mike Nadeau, who helped guide creation of City Meadow in 2018, to discuss the next steps. The committee insisted that it review Nadeau’s proposed plan to ensure that his concept supports its aspirations. The committee asked for a sketch of the plan by mid-summer, with a walk through the meadow to better visualize Nadeau’s ideas. Committee members also asked Riiska to obtain pictures of Nadeau projects to give them insight into what the finished Meadow might look like.

The committee further discussed the proximity of City Meadow to the new firehouse. Several issues were discussed, including power for the observation deck, plantings, parking, the walkway past the firehouse and a bike rack. Member Martyn Banks, a firefighter, agreed to set up a meeting between the fire department’s building committee and the Friends group. The committee also requested blueprints of the building and planting plans.

Newsletter Editor

Town Offers Free Wood to Homeowners

Residents interested in a delivery of wood from Norfolk Public Works should contact the Selectmen’s Office at 860-542-5829. There is a simple form to fill out and the wood will be delivered to a designated spot on the homeowner’s property.

“We do so many trees per month, things that blow down or we take down,” said First Selectman Matt Riiska. “We need to do something with the wood and providing it for individuals to burn is a good thing.”

While the offer seems like a boon, homeowners should be aware that the wood will not be cut in stove-length pieces or split. 

Trees are not the only things being trimmed in Norfolk. The tree account in the proposed 2024-25 general government budget has been reduced by $60,000, this despite the decimation of ash trees by the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), which has killed or is killing all the mature ash trees in the state. Ash trees account for about 15 percent of Connecticut forests.

A tiny, stingless Asian wasp, a predator of the EAB, has been introduced in Connecticut in the hope that it will control the number of ash borers and let new growth flourish.

In addition, many maple trees are in ill health. “We have a lot of maples that are old and distressed,” said Riiska. “I wish we could do more tree trimming. Last year we paid a contractor $60,000 to take down a considerable number but that won’t happen this year. We hope to pick it back up next year. We have a $40,000 line item for trees, but you could quadruple that.”

Newsletter Editor

Library Is Out of Solar Eclipse Glasses

Solar eclipse fever has cleaned out the dozens of free ISO-compliant solar eclipse glasses that were offered by the Norfolk Library.

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Botelle Kids to View Near-Total Eclipse

In case you didn’t know, there will be a solar eclipse on Monday, April 8. Connecticut will experience a 92 percent reduction in daylight around 3:20 p.m. at the peak of the eclipse, when the moon blocks the sun.

Botelle students will have the opportunity to observe the eclipse. Looking directly at the eclipse can harm the eye, however, so Botelle has ordered special glasses for students and staff. The glasses filter out 99.9999 percent of visible sunlight and 100 percent harmful UV light from the sun. Parents who do not wish their children to observe the eclipse should let the school know .

Newsletter Editor

School, Town Budgets Ready for Board of Finance

Budget season is no fun for town officials, even in the best of years. This is definitely not the best of years for First Selectman Matt Riiska, who is having to deal with school budgets that by far overshadow the remainder of Norfolk’s expenses.

Riiska recently received a copy of the Botelle School budget, showing a $230,000 increase in spending over last year to $2,649,086 230, an increase of 9.54 percent. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, he had learned that the town’s assessment at Northwestern Regional School #7 will rise by $345,000, up 19.2 percent if passed as presented. Norfolk’s total Region 7 assessment would be $2,146,681.

School costs, which usually account for about 75 percent of the annual budget, force town officers to keep their budgets lean. “One is up $230,000, the other $345,000 and I have actually reduced my budget by $55,000 by just going through and trimming here and trimming there,” Riiska said.

Riiska had earlier pledged to the Board of Finance that he would keep his final budget as close to this year’s $4,331,551 level of spending for municipal services as he could. He more than succeeded, achieving a reduced total of $4,276,869. How he did that will be explored more closely in next week’s newsletter.

The town, like all the communities in the Northwest Corner, has seen steadily declining school enrollments in recent years. This year there are 70 students at Botelle and only 750 attending the middle and high schools. “I understand there are costs you can’t avoid,” said Riiska. “You have to have teachers whether you have five kids or 55. And everyone gets a 3 percent raise.”

Another factor for the elementary school is a special education student whose outplacement will cost $185,000. That sum is offset by reductions in other line items in special education spending, reducing the total increase to 27 percent, or $151,000.

Riiska and the Board of Education will take their final proposals to the Board of Finance on April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at a meeting in Town Hall. The finance board can cut specific line items in the selectmen’s budget but can only dictate an amount that the Board of Education should cut, not where the reduction(s) should be made.

Newsletter Editor

Early Voting Very Light, Registrar Says

As of Thursday morning, only a handful of people had taken advantage of early voting, according to Democratic Registrar of Voters Danese Perron.

“I didn’t expect a big response, but we haven’t had much of anyone because they have been tearing up Maple Avenue,” she said. The town has been upgrading the infrastructure on Maple Avenue for the past year and is now preparing to pave it.

No one appeared on March 26. “They were working right in front of Town Hall,” Perron explained. Four persons voted Wednesday, and she was excited to see another voter approaching Thursday morning.

Early voting continues from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday followed by the presidential primary on Tuesday, April 2, from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. There is no voting on Friday.

April 1, at noon, is the deadline for registering in person with the Registrar of Voters or Town Clerk to vote April 2. It is also the deadline for unaffiliated voters to enroll in person in a party to vote April 2.

See the Democratic Sample Ballot here. See the Republican Sample Ballot here.

Newsletter Editor

Talk Will Consider Declining Insect Populations

Bugs. Most of us would prefer not to share space with them. But with their numbers in sharp decline around the world, Susannah Wood, chairman of the Norfolk Conservation Commission, believes we had better take notice.

She will present a slide talk Saturday, April 6, at 4:00 p.m. at the Norfolk Library titled, “Insects in Peril—Why We Should Care and What We Can Do.”

I knowlot of people go, ‘Ewww, bugs!’ but I have never felt that way. The insects that bother us are a tiny part of the insect world and I hope to broaden people’s perspective,” she said.

Insects are disappearing at alarming rates around the world. In the last 40 years, it’s estimated that we have lost 50 per cent of the world’s insects, according to the first global review published in the journal “Biological Conservation.” 

“I know attention has been very focused lately on pollinators, creating pollinator gardens and trying to help those important partners in our eco-system,” she continued. But when Oliver Millman, who wrote “Insect Crisis,” came to the Haystack Book Festival in 2022, “it made me realize the problem is bigger than pollinators.”

Milman and his book made Wood aware that insects are the underappreciated sanitary engineers and nutrient recyclers of our world. “I wanted to explore the whole panoply of insect life, how amazing they are and why they are imperiled,” she said. “So many creatures depend on bugs for food, and it goes right up the food chain to creatures much larger than insects. They are in bad shape and it’s kind of alarming. I wanted to know what we could do to preserve this eco-system, this bubble of life around insects.”

It turns out that many factors are spurring loss of insect populations, including loss of habitat, heavier use of pesticides and possibly climate change. “It’s happening in so many places,” Wood said. “Our environment is so fragmented. I have a big bottle of Round Up that I need to get to the next Hazardous Waste Day, but my neighbor might still use that product—and you have no control over that. So, the best thing you can do is educate people.”

Her program is sponsored by the Norfolk Conservation Commission. Register here.

Newsletter Editor

Ambulance Service Coping with Post-Covid World

The Norfolk Lions Club Ambulance is being pressed by a combination of factors as it faces a post-Covid world. Among them are decreasing volunteerism, a rising number of calls –many from neighboring Winsted—and the ever-increasing cost of doing business.

And the nature of the calls is changing, as well. Norfolk Chief of Service Kitty Hickcox said a larger number of responses are for mental health problems and drug-related emergencies. “There was an extreme uptick [in mental health] calls during Covid,” Hickcox said, “and it is still higher than pre-Covid.”

Connecticut regulations require two medically trained personnel on every run. “Usually, it is an EMT and EMR, as well as a driver,” she said. “There are a handful of times where we pass on a call because we don’t have enough people on the shift. Then, we have to go to mutual aid, usually from Winsted or North Canaan.”

Mutual aid can be a two-edged sword, however, and frequent calls from Winsted have pressed Norfolk’s crew. “Winsted benefits quite a bit,” she said. “More than 10 percent of our calls are to Winsted and [additional] calls probably gets cancelled the same number of times. Winsted could use a second full-time crew. As it is now, Norfolk and New Hartford pick up their slack.”

Hickcox said Winsted called on Norfolk 75 times in 2023, cancelling before the ambulance could arrive at least 40 times. Its in-town calls totaled 140, and it covered Colebrook, which is part of its coverage area, 27 times.

Because Norfolk has only one ambulance, the town is unprotected while the crew answers calls from neighboring towns.

She explained the domino effect that can result from mutual aid calls. If a town needs mutual aid, calls are routed through a list of ambulance services in neighboring communities until one can respond. It takes six minutes each time a call is forwarded to a new town. “The expectation is that you call 911 and an ambulance arrives in your yard,” Hickcox said. “But it can become a medical game of musical chairs. It can be 45 minutes that [a patient] lies on the floor.”

The Norfolk ambulance squad lost about 20 percent of its manpower during the pandemic but has succeeded in attracting enough volunteers to fill its ranks since then, sparing it the fate of other Northwest Connecticut towns that rely, at least in part, on paid EMTs. “But we always need volunteers,” said Hickcox. “That is probably our biggest challenge.”

If a town had to rely solely on a paid department it could cost more than $1 million annually.

“We have spent the last few years trying to fill the ranks. We have a fair number of retired people. We do really well with people in their 60s, who want a new challenge. We always say our volunteers range from 25 and 80.”

Many towns use junior corps to engage the next generation of volunteers, but Hickcox said Norfolk has no program for young people. “There aren’t enough kids in town,” she said, adding that Northwestern Regional School #7 no longer offers Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes.

Although there is no official program for young people in Norfolk, youths can still take part, however. “They can take an EMR class at 14 and an EMT class at 16, but they can’t be unsupervised until they are 18,” Hickcox said. 

There are always classes forming in nearby towns or online. Adults sometimes take month-long intensive training to earn certification. To qualify as an EMR requires 60 to 70 hours of instruction, while EMT courses consume some 250 hours. EMTs must take 40 hours of continuing education every other year. “It’s a long haul,” said Hickcox.

“A lot of people will say, ‘I’ll write you a check,’” she said. “I don’t want to say money isn’t important, but it’s not our biggest challenge. There’s always an excuse why they can’t join.”

Those who wish to volunteer can find application forms on the service’s website. https://norfolkambulance.com

The Norfolk ambulance service is funded by the Norfolk Lions Club, in-kind support from the town, memorial contributions and donations. 

—Newsletter Editor

Food Pantry User Numbers Explode

Inflation may have eased marginally in the past few months, but the Norfolk NET Community Food Pantry is still seeing its impact on area families. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, a total of 27 families were fed, a great increase over pre-Covid figures.

“It’s interesting,” said volunteer director Lynn Deasy. “When we started keeping statistics in January of 2022, we fed only eight different families each week for a total of 27 people. Now we are up to 42 families a week, or 114 people.”

 “In the past few weeks, we have had a couple of days where we were as high as 20 different people. My volunteers have rollerblades on. The numbers have just exploded,” she said.

The Pantry has nine volunteers. “We are so blessed. We couldn’t do this without them,” the director said. 

Deasy has seen little reduction in the cost of living. “I don’t see a decrease,” she said. “If you need food, you need a lot of other things as well. A lot of times people are just shifting things around, asking, ‘What bill will I pay?’”

The Community Food Pantry, located in Battell Chapel, takes a some of the worry out of current daily life. It is set up like a mini grocery store and patrons are allowed to choose what they like to eat, unlike some food banks, which hand out bags of pre-selected groceries. “We were trying to figure out why we are getting so many people,” Deasy said. “Everyone said, ‘Because you let me choose what to eat.’ We all have things we don’t like.”

She said there are no restrictions on the amount taken, except for meat or dairy products, which are limited to two meat items and three dairy products. “We do ask them not to come more than once a week and I tell them, ‘Pretend this is your weekly grocery shopping.”

An affiliated Clothes Closet serves anyone who needs clothing and bedding, and accepts donations of clean, lightly used items.

Since 2017, the food pantry has been operated under the auspices of Norfolk NET, a collaborative, grassroots organization that works to alleviate poverty. “The food bank has been around for 30 years and used to be operated through the Church of Christ’s discretionary account,” said Deasy.

“But we got feedback that some people didn’t like writing a check to the church. We talked with [First Selectman Matt Riiska] to see if we could go under the town, but that never really worked.” 

The group further explored becoming a nonprofit but were dissuaded by the tax filings required for 501(c)(3)s. In the end, the agency simply opened a bank account, and donations can be made directly to the Norfolk Food Pantry. “It makes it easier to budget and balance,” said Deasy.

“Mostly, we are trying to figure out what else we can be doing to increase support. We’ve upped our social media, and my sister is building a website. I think that will help. And the town pages [the Norfolk Hub’s eblast, norfolkct.org and the church pages] have gotten the word out,” she continued. “Without donations, we wouldn’t exist.”

People can support the food pantry by either placing non-perishable foodstuffs in a blue bin at the back of Battell Chapel, 12 Litchfield Road; bringing perishable items such as meat and milk to the food pantry during opening hours, or through monetary donations left with pantry volunteers or in the church office. 

While all donations are gratefully received, Deasy said that money may benefit the food bank more. They have a dedicated shopper, David Gourley, who assiduously seeks out bargains. “He loves to shop, and he is always looking for the best prices,” Deasy said. 

Each week on its Facebook page, the food bank lists foods that it particularly needs. This week it is seeking cold and hot cereals, oranges, apples, bananas, coffee, cranberry juice and egg cartons. Yes, egg cartons—Bill Arkuett’s hens are back on the job after their winter hiatus. 

The food bank is open Tuesday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. 

Newsletter Editor

Town Settles “Slip and Fall” Lawsuit

The “slip and fall” lawsuit brought against the town after a pedestrian fell in the vicinity of the Congregational Church has been settled for an undisclosed amount.

First Selectman Matt Riiska told the Board of Finance this week that a settlement was agreed to before the trial could begin. “They settled at about 9:30 at night,” he said. A jury had already been empaneled. 

Riiska said the town’s insurance company will pay the settlement, but he is looking to the future and prevention of future accidents. A municipality is responsible by state statute for the maintenance of sidewalks, both repairing them and clearing them following storms.

He said he contacted Julia Scharnberg, head of the Historic District Commission, to discuss the issue. “I told her there are three choices,” he said. “We can remove the walks and put in grass, we could put in gravel walks or … well, we really can’t choose three, which would be to put in granite walks.”

He will also take an ordinance to a future town meeting that would require home and business owners to clear walks in front of their properties. 

Newsletter Editor