Winsted planning officials work together to guide town's growth

WINSTED — On any given weekday, Town Planner Lance Hansen and his team can be found consulting, advising and explaining the ins and outs of developing a property or a business in Winsted.

In the town's office of Planning and Community Development, Hansen works with enforcement officer Michael Stankov, assistant building official William Pietreface, who retired from a 30-year career in construction; Economic Development Director Ted Shafer, former Burlington first selectman; and Pam Colombie, land use assistant, who has worn other hats in the planning department including enforcement.

Colombie, Hansen said, is the first point of contact for the public when they call or visit Town Hall. "She's about to celebrate seven years with the town," he said. "She's a big part of what we do here."

Hansen tracks every project and and looks at ways to improve recreation opportunities. He develops relationships with potential builders and developers interested in finding a place in Winsted, and, with Shafer, works with them to find the right building or property.

He previously was town planner for Wellesley, Mass., after graduating from the University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He returned to Connecticut in 1990 after becoming engaged to his now-wife, Valerie, and began working for the state, first with the state parks division, then the Greenways Assistance Center, and then the Land Acquisition and Management Division, before he joined the Wildlife Division in 2008.

Then, "I interviewed for the (Winsted) job with Town Manager Josh Kelly (in 2022), and we just bonded," Hansen said. "I have a background in planning, and I saw the job and wanted it.

"Winsted has a lot of opportunities for tourism, with all our beautiful parks and the lake, and hiking should be at the forefront of that," he said. "There's so much that can be done. State parks said that during the pandemic, more people used them because they were looking for safe activities, and to get outside. Winsted is a good example of that."

Stankov and Pietreface work with the public daily, consulting with applicants and visiting properties.

"I started in August of 2022, and it's been an interesting experience," Pietreface said. "I start with meeting people and seeing their site plans, so they know what to expect when they apply for permits. After getting zoning approval, we monitor the site work and made sure the building codes, fire codes, things like that, are being followed.

"It's all about safety," he said. "There's electricity, plumbing, framing. ... I was a contractor for 30 years, so I've worked with that for a long time. I'm very busy. There's a lot going on in Winsted."

He's also getting his state certification so that he can become a building official, a step up from assistant.

Stankov has been with Winsted for nearly two years, and as the zoning enforcement officer and wetlands official, he handles a wide variety of projects and situations.

"Land use enforcement is all about not overcrowding land, to make sure there's good air and water and a natural regenerative process of the land," Stankov said. "It's about setbacks from wetlands ... building height, and following the regulations, for example. For me, most of my day, in addition to responding to inquiries, is discussing building lots that were built before zoning.

"What that means is, we wouldn't allow a lot of them now, but we can't make them take down a house or a building. If they want to expand or build more, we help them do it without causing problems," he said. "The word 'grandfathered' is nowhere in the regulations; it just means, you can't expand. So while I do the permits, Pam can tell people what's required in those permits (to be in compliance)."

Stankov also sits down with applicants to go through their requirements, bringing them into the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting with an understanding of what they have to do for approval. "Lance tells a person what they need, and they can come in for a consultation," he said.

Shafer is also part of the land use team, because he learns about proposed development ideas. "We had a great turnout during our recent Economic Development Commission breakfast," he said. "There's a lot of interest in the future, and in opportunities for growth."

Typically, Shafer said, he works on the commercial side of that growth and development. "I got here in 2022, and I focus on retention of local businesses, and recruitment of new ones," he said. "When I started, I focused on the Main Street corridor, because we have existing businesses and merchants, and we want to help them continue.

"We also have empty storefronts, which are starting to fill up in areas of Main Street, and we're meeting entrepreneurs with great ideas," he said. "We want to find out what they want and do what we can to provide it, so they'll open here."

Winsted's historic mill buildings, such as those on Main Street on the Mad River, are also a focus for Shafer. "They're historical mills that need rehabilitation," he said.

"In 2022, the planning office staff helped experienced developers take those buildings over and apply for cleanup fund, which is a huge step," he said. "That's continuing, to make them secure and safe, and help with a vision for them. There are so many possibilities; for affordable and market value housing, offices, retail. ... People are also looking for event spaces to provide entertainment, for example. There's a demand for venues."

Shafer also spends a lot of time networking, meeting community members and building relationships. "It's been a nice transition into 2023, now that we've got good relationships going with so many businesses and other people," he said.

Shafer and Hansen noted that the Mad River, which runs along the Main Street corridor, has potential for walking trails and recreation. "The town's very walkable," said Hansen.

"Integrating the river into a recreational experience, with that walkability, has real potential," Shafer said.

The team members say they work well together, and are focused on common goals, while protecting the town's natural resources. Hansen noted that Fire Marshal Steve Williams is also a key to helping builders and developers stick to the regulations.

"Our overriding goal is that our policies work with our efforts," Shafer said. "We want to raise the commercial tax base, in an appropriate way, and we can provide relief to the taxpayers and help them feel good about living in town. Doing that has been meaningful, and we're seeing progress."