This week’s FROM WALLINGFORD is written by my counterpart on the column - Stephen Knight
As Published in the Record Journal Sunday December 26, 2010
Well, for now, the Incentive Housing Zone for downtown Wallingford is off the table. Monday night, the Town Council deadlocked on the issue and the Planning and Zoning Commission postponed a vote on the plan. While support for the plan seemed to be building a year ago, it was clear that that support dissipated in the intervening months. While most of the opposition seemed to center around the need for more information, I think that there are three other factors that also figured into the resultant, lukewarm support.
First of all, major changes to existing regulations have to be driven by either 1) an actual proposal put forth by an entity with means to make the project actually happen, or, 2) a consensus among those most affected that the changes are in their best interest. Neither of those conditions was in evidence. The idea appears to have come to life because some of the social engineers in Hartford passed legislation offering financial incentives to consider development of this sort. Then financial incentives that got the town to the table in the first place were drastically reduced. That left little or no impetus for changes to be made, and what little momentum that did exist died.
Secondly, there are many in Wallingford skeptical of accepting state funds for an entirely local project, and I certainly share such skepticism. When the State of Connecticut offers money to local communities, it does so in order to induce compliance with whatever grand scheme it is that they are promoting. The proverbial “strings attached” to that funding has two results: 1) the town loses control over whatever the project is and 2) the completion of the project slows to a crawl. In this case, the money that the state is offering no doubt came with an enormous set of conditions, restrictions and impediments.
As illustration, I offer you the Christian Street bridge debacle of recent years. Do you recall how long that bridge took to replace? The Town had originally sought to work through the state’s local bridge program, but the project got so bogged down in red tape that the town administration finally threw up its hands, completed its own design and installed the bridge without any state assistance for hundreds of thousands less. In the present Incentive Housing Zone case, the question had to be asked: if we take the money, how much control over the area are we ceding to the bureaucracy in Hartford? Is it really worth it?
Lastly, the linchpin of this whole redevelopment idea is the commuter rail service that is supposed to be built over the next few years. Maybe no one brought this up in Monday’s meeting, but I am beginning to doubt if this operation will ever be built. The state is facing years of multibillion dollar deficits. And, to make the problem far worse, the federal government recently turned down Connecticut’s request for additional hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the project, leaving it for the state to bear the lion’s share of funding. In other words, no one in Hartford will say it, but I think this project is stalled. If that is indeed the case, a huge incentive for creating this special zone is gone.
I take a backseat to nobody in my support for downtown Wallingford and the creation of ways to keep it healthy and attractive. Perhaps sometime in the future, this Incentive Housing Zone will be revisited and the good effort of Town Planner Linda Bush will bring a different result. At present, however, the irony seems to be that the town’s best action was to take no action.