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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

FROM WALLINGFORD - Referendum? Hold your nose and vote

Originally published in the Record Journal Sunday August 28, 2011

As written by Mike Brodinsky


Some folks in Wallingford are circulating a petition, which, if signed by enough registered voters, would result in a referendum on the Council’s decision, by a divided vote, to approve 30-year leases for the privately-owned parking area in back of Simpson Court. Historically, the whole area in back of four buildings has been used for public parking, although only a portion of it has been leased to the Town. The proposed new leases, covering all the area, would enable the Town to build and maintain a new parking lot at an estimated cost of $500,000. Although money matters to everybody, the controversy is not so much about the amount being spent. The parking lot is a relatively modest project. The controversy is stoked more by principle than by costs.

You should sign the petition.

Your signature does not necessarily mean that you are against the project. Because public officials have done a terrible job explaining the details and proposed terms, many voters are confused and skeptical. You should sign the petition if you have any questions or doubts. A referendum buys more time to learn, so we can make an informed choice at the polls, before the decision is irrevocable.

Proponents of the new parking lot reasonably claim the deal will result in significant benefits. Because many people park behind Simpson Court, the town would install a spiffy new parking lot there, with 130 spaces for cars. The new lot probably wouldn’t add many extra spaces to what is there now, but it would help make the uptown area safer and more welcoming. People would experience this enhancement very personally just by parking. (Of course, they park there now, but it’s kind of depressing.) Finally, if the leases are not approved, what happens next? If this project doesn’t get completed soon, won’t the property look the same or worse for the foreseeable future? That’s not good for anybody.

Opponents, on the other hand, reasonably believe that the deal between the town and the owners of the properties is not balanced. They say the property owners are being unduly enriched, because, when the leases expire, Wallingford’s parking lot is theirs to keep. Moreover, as soon as the lot is built, the value of the private properties would go up. A new parking lot, built at the public’s expense, fully maintained and cared for by the town for 30 years, but available for a new owner’s tenants and customers, adds value. As a result, an owner should be able to sell his Simpson Court property for more money because of all the public funding. Wallingford wouldn’t be reimbursed one penny for its costs.

Opponents also suggest that if the town is going to spend money to provide improved parking, it should be spent for parking in the Wooding-Caplan area, across the street, which Wallingford already owns.

Who pays for the snowplowing and pavement repairs under the proposed leases? The town. How much more might it pay? How much less might the property owners pay? That has never been explained. Do the leases allow the property owners to claim any special parking privileges the general public would not have? Take a look at the leases. It’s revealing. Town Hall needs to be more clear about comparative maintenance costs, whether all parkers would be treated equally, and if not, why not. If there’s any doubt about these details, sign the petition to force disclosure of all the information you need.

While some are enthusiastic about the plan, others are adamantly opposed. Other voters like me are caught in the middle. They appreciate the benefits of the project, and are not offended by the costs. But they suspect that local officials could have negotiated a much better deal. Whichever way those people vote, it’s likely they will be holding their noses. It’s their Constitutional right to do that.

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