As published in the Record Journal, Thursday August 11, 2011
By Robert Cyr
WALLINGFORD — A group of residents is trying to collect thousands of signatures to fight the town’s half-million dollar investment to improve an uptown parking lot during a 30-year use agreement.
The Town Council approved the agreement with four property owners Tuesday night. It gives the town the authority to make improvements worth $500,000 to the lot and make it available for public use, but it also requires the town to provide maintenance for 30 years. Robert Gross, who has run unsuccessfully for the council as a Democrat, began a petition drive Wednesday to overturn the council’s decision under the referendum provision of the Town Charter. He has until Sept. 8 to collect signatures from 2,491 voters — 10 percent of the registered voters in town. If he meets his goal, the council has 30 days to rescind the vote or else the matter will go to a town wide referendum.
“I don’t care who owns the property — I don’t feel that the town should pay to pave and maintain a privately owned parking lot,” Gross said. “It’s up to the people to decide whether this is a reasonable issue or not. This is just democracy at work.”
But there’s more at stake than the town simply sprucing up the 130-space parking area behind four businesses on Simpson Court, off North Main Street, said William Comerford, who keeps close watch on town government and is a member of the group Concerned Citizens of Wallingford.
Comerford claims the business relationship between a town councilor and one of the property owners involved in the agreement represents a conflict of interest.
“We feel the people need to know what’s going on,” he said. Town Council Vice Chairman Jerry Farrell Jr. recently opened a law business on the second floor over TD Bank North, 2 North Main Street, adjacent to the parking lot. The building is owned by a limited liability company that owns a portion of the lot and lists John McGuire as its principal. McGuire is also listed as principal of the company that owns a neighboring building, home to Body & Soul Day Spa, 26 N. Main Street, according to state records.
Farrell denied any conflict, saying he doesn’t pay rent on the business space he has been using for the past two months for his legal consulting firm.
“I’m not Jack McGuire’s tenant, I’m there as a guest,” Farrell said. “I don’t pay him any money, so I don’t see any particular gain or advantage for me to voting on it.”
Town Engineer John Thompson said Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. told him to hold off on any improvements to the lot until the matter of a potential referendum is cleared up, but to continue preliminary work. The council approved the project with a bid waiver, allowing the town to get started right away without a competitive bidding process, Thompson said.
The first step in repairs will be to fix a long section of concrete wall that supports the lot and has been damaged by freezing and water. Work will also include paving, grading and drainage improvements.
“If the wall failed for some reason, it would compromise our whole investment,” Thompson said.
Dickinson said the project is being paid for by revenue from the Wallingford Electric Division, and the town pays nothing to use the space. The town has traditionally plowed and maintained the lot, along with three others it leases, he said.
Republican Councilor Craig Fishbein voted against the lease agreement, and said it was unwise to invest town money in a privately owned property.
“In this economy, $500,000 is a lot of money, and I think it could’ve been spent better elsewhere,” he said. “It’s a tough decision because you’re trying to portray a safe, well maintained downtown area, but the long-term outlay is bad. On top of the outlay, we have the ongoing cost of maintenance.”
Democrat Nicholas Economopoulos was the only other councilor to vote against the lease.
“I don’t think we’re in a position to improve private owners’ property; they’re some of the more affluent people in town,” he said. “There is not one item of proof, one report, that those improvements will help the town or increase people shopping in that part of town.”
But Mario DiNatale supports the agreement. The local businessman owns East Side Market on East Center Street and the former Town Hall at 350 Center St., now occupied by offices.
“The lot is used by everybody, so maybe it’s not so bad,” he said. “They’re not paying anything, so if the town’s going to use it, they should fix it.”
Parking is already available in the lot behind Simpson Court, but the area is in poor condition and not well lighted. Still, Don Blynn wonders why the project is necessary, since the lot is already getting a lot of use.
“I’m going to vote no on the half-million dollars,” said Blynn, who was having dinner with his wife Ginny Wednesday at Half Moon Cafe on Simpson Court. “The parking lot fills every night anyways.”
Ginny Blynn also thinks “the money could be spent better somewhere else,” she said, “like paying for sports or schools.”