Planning Director Tom Wagner, 58, started working at the Town of Waterford on Feb. 22, 1983. His last day on the job will be Fed. 22, 2013.
“It’s been a long road,” Wagner said, who recently announced that he was planning on retiring. “But a good road. And hopefully, we did some good things for the town.”
He began when Crystal Mall was still more than a year away from opening, when Waterford was known as a quiet farming community. In the 30 years that have passed, it has transformed into a retail Mecca, with nearly every box store setting up shop along Rt. 85, Cross Road or Rt. 1, along with dozens of housing developments, the ongoing Seaside saga and the construction of six new schools.
Wagner has overseen all of that. His responsibilities are vast: he still is the head of planning, the part of the job he loves, is charged with overseeing the planning, zoning and building departments, along with acting as the director of buildings and grounds for all town-owned buildings.
He said in an interview with Patch Wednesday that he still enjoys working with developers, still has a passion for low-impact development and the environment and, for the most part, the developers have been good to work with. What has grinded on him over the years is all the other parts of the job: the creating of budgets, acting as the director of buildings and grounds and the other unique aspects of working in the public sector.
“The toughest part of the job, for me, is working with the public sector,” Wagner said. “I enjoyed working with the private sector, the developers, they are often more forward thinking and more worried about conservation than the public sector.”
First Selectman Dan Steward said Wagner’s retirement will be a loss for the town, as he has been with the town for so long and has taken on so many responsibilities. Steward said he has just begun the process of searching for Wagner’s successor.
“What does it mean to lose 30 years of institutional knowledge?,” Steward said. “Trouble. But it's good for him and it is what happens.”
Wagner was born in New Jersey and moved to Ledyard when he was 8. He wrestled at Ledyard High School and then in college and got a job working in Westerly, RI, in community development when he was 25.
That job came under fire three years after he got it after President Ronald Reagan cut the grant that funded his position. So he applied to work as the town planner and development coordinator in the Town of Waterford and was hired by First Selectman Larry Bettencourt at age 28.
At that time, there was one another person working part-time in the planning office. By 1995, Wagner’s position had changed so much he earned a new title, Planning Director, where now he was the head of the planning department, which included an environmental planner and a town planner, the zoning department, the building department and charged with maintaing all town-owned buildings.
Still, the part of the job he talks the most passionately about is the development that has come into town, and how development has actually preserved much of the land throughout Waterford. For example, the Walmart development in Waterford actually protects Jordan Brook, Wagner said. Developments like that proved the theories that development, if done correctly, can actually save important ecosystems and not affect water quality, he said.
He said the most challenging project he worked on in his 30 years was the construction of the six schools – three elementary schools, Clark Lane Middle School, The Friendship School and the ongoing Waterford High School project – because again he said the public sector proved more difficult to work with than the private sector. Meanwhile, when asked his favorite development, he had a few, but a surprising one jumped out.
His favorite was the construction of the Visiting Nurses Association of Southeastern Connecticut’s building and the SpringHill Suites hotel, both of which are located off of North Frontage Road. Both of those projects were built right near wetlands, and yet they were done in a way where they were attractive but also protected the wetlands in the area, he said.
“They were just nice, tight developments,” Wagner said.
Wagner said he still hopes that Seaside Sanitarium is developed in a way that “the town can be proud of,” and still holds out hope for the vacant property that used to hold the Waterford airport. He admits that after he retires in February, “it will be hard to let it go,” but looks forward to his new life.
He said he plans on getting his body in shape, working outside more and taking a few months off to relax. Then he said he was considering getting a job as a consultant and even volunteering in some capacity to help the town.
“It is something that I am really looking forward to,” Wagner said. “But will see, I guess I’ll find out when it happens.”