Written by John Tyczkowski for The Rivereast
Published on 9/18/15
The Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG) is an official entity that, while regularly mentioned in town government, doesn’t usually get its moment in the spotlight outside of town hall. The RiverCOG is a regional governing body created to help towns pool their resources and better solicit aid from the state to complete economic and infrastructure projects.
The RiverCOG was created in 2012 from two other regional planning agencies, the Midstate Regional Planning Agency based in Middletown and the Connecticut River Estuary Regional Planning Agency based in Old Saybrook. The consolidation was voluntary and made possible by the towns themselves, and helped protect the region’s uniqueness, Sam Gold the RiverCOG’s executive director, said. “This is its own place, and it’s very distinct from its neighbors,” he said. “It’s very special; people come to the Lower Connecticut River Valley and live here because of its unique quality of life.”
There are nine such entities in the state which Gold called “forums for regional cooperation.” Each has a different focus based upon their towns’ needs. “For example, the RiverCOG focuses a lot on regional transportation, regional land use planning and regional economic development,” Gold said. It also receives both state and federal funding in areas including transportation planning and emergency management and disaster preparedness. Some town money is involved when individual towns implement initiatives, and from annual per capita dues, but “the vast majority of the RiverCOG’s budget comes from those state and federal grants,” Gold said.
The RiverCOG also hosts several regional collaborative initiatives as far-flung as household hazardous waste collection and helping to preserve views of the Connecticut River under a 1970s state law. The RiverCOG is composed of 17 municipalities – 16 towns and the City of Middletown. Its board is made up of elected town officials, such as first selectmen. And they meet “as equals,” Gold said, which is conducive to productive discussion.
Another important distinction to make, Gold said, is “the COG works for the towns, not the other way around,” and as such, is different from county government. “We can make recommendations, but ultimately, the towns decide whether to implement them, and how to implement them if they do,” he said.
Jean Davies, the RiverCOG’s deputy director, said the fact that it does not include the political function of traditional country government is a “definite strength.”
“It’s a place where people can come together and talk freely about common goals and common solutions without a political umbrella,” she said. “We’re not regulatory, and we’re not a taxing authority. We’re basically an extension of the towns.”
As such, the RiverCOG doesn’t follow county lines; rather it includes 17 municipalities: the entirety of Middlesex County, and Lyme and Old Lyme in New London County. It’s also anchored culturally around the Connecticut River, reflected in its main offices, located off Route 9 in Essex.
Davies said the region’s shared culture and characteristics are a major part of what helps the RiverCOG meet its goals. “The idea is to maximize regional efficiencies through those common threads,” she said. “And when dealing with complex issues such as housing, energy and agriculture, working together is key, especially with so many small towns in the region.”
In particular, one program the RiverCOG is preparing to roll out this year is its growSMART initiative, which focuses on regional economic development and using towns’ limited land effectively for maximum economic impact. It’s a great way for people to see exactly what it is the RiverCOG does, and to get actively involved in and help influence the process, Davies said.
“The idea is to have the towns become better at marketing the region and themselves,” she said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for getting a feel for what each town wants, and what their individual strengths are.” There will be an outreach event Tuesday, Sept. 22 from 4 pm- 8 pm at The Riverhouse, 55 Bridge St. in Haddam.
At the event, Davies said, there will be several stations where people will have the chance to show what they know about their region and their town, self-graded, and answer questions about the future of their region and town. “We’re also going to ask people to give feedback on what these see as the major strengths and weaknesses of the region, major opportunities and major threats to the region,” she said. “We’ll also give them words to respond to and ask them what they feel is most important to them in the region.”
“There are a lot of challenges with how you grow a region while keeping the small-town character that everyone values, and we want to know what ideas people who live in the region have about that,” she said. Next Tuesday’s outreach event will be the first in a series, Davies said. She said the RiverCOG will “eventually take this on the road with tents and go to different places around the region.”
“Residents of towns in the region are definitely encouraged to attend and offer their perspectives at this first event; it’s our first attempt to market the region so comprehensively,” Davies said. “Anyone can stop in, for even just 15 minutes, and have the potential to make a big impact.”