As published in the Record Journal, Wednesday September 14, 2011
By Robert Cyr
WALLINGFORD — In the face of an impending referendum, the Town Council stood by a controversial decision it made on Aug. 9 to enter into a 30-year lease agreement with property owners uptown that would allow the town to make upgrades to the lot in return for free public parking.
The deal was opposed by two councilors — Democrat Nicholas Economopoulos and Republican Craig Fishbein — and a petition to hold a referendum was started a day later by Robert Gross, who once ran for a seat on the council and who has previously started a successful petition drive.
Gross had until Sept. 8 to collect 2,491 signatures, or 10 percent of registered voters, to begin the referendum process. Gross, Economopoulos and a handful of other volunteers collected that amount outside grocery stores and at public events. Economopoulos said that most of the public agreed with his sentiment that town money should not be invested in private property.
“We’re going to open a can of worms if we don’t repeal this,” he said before the vote.
The council has 30 days after Sept. 8 to repeal its decision.
The deal was pushed by three sets of property owners along Simpson Court who had been part of a year-to-year lease agreement set up in 1961. Under the recent agreement, the town will also provide maintenance, including snow plowing. The intent is to create a safer, more attractive parking lot that will continue to provide an alternative to the often- crowded parking area in front of the Simpson Court businesses.
The council approved spending up to $500,000 on improvements to the lot, including paving and lighting, as part of Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s 2011-12 budget, passed earlier this year. The money would come out of the capital non-recurring fund made up of revenue from the Electric Division.
Fishbein pointed to the controversial Wooding-Kaplan property, a town-owned, undeveloped property also in the uptown area, and said that could be used for parking.
“I would rather see us deal with that situation,” he said.
Councilor John LeTourneau, owner of Wallingford Lamp and Shade on Center Street, said the spending cap of a half million dollars will likely be a high estimate for the work that has been discussed.
“It could be much cheaper than that — it’s not written in stone,” he said. “We have to have a clean, vibrant, well-lit area to attract businesses. How can we ever think of wooing a business when our downtown doesn’t look good? It’s our front yard.”
According to the Town Charter, once 10 percent of registered voters have signed a petition and those names have been verified by the Town Clerk, the council has 30 days to reverse its decision. Barring that, the issue goes before the public and a vote must take place within 60 days. A majority of 20 percent of the registered voters in town must vote to repeal the council decision.
“If we changed our minds based on a portion, that would be a disservice to everybody else,” said Councilor Vincent Testa. “I’m not changing my vote. I want to see this referendum happen, and have it be the will of the people.”
Resident Geno Zandri told the council that he personally collected more than 1,000 signatures and felt the common sentiment would prevail in the referendum to reverse the council’s decision.
“If I could have assembled every registered voter in the town of Wallingford, 90 percent of them would have signed that petition,” he said. “The public doesn’t want you to do it.”
Frederick Ulbrich, owner of 60 N. Main St. for the past 9 years, said Wallingford “needs and deserves” a good parking lot uptown. Ulbrich is not a part of the recent agreement, although his lot, now up for sale, abuts the buildings and lot in the lease.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen to that property in 30 years,” he said. “You are really taking action on the future of Wallingford. The town has a great deal.”
Gross said he started the petition drive with the confidence that he could get the roughly 5,000 votes needed at referendum to overturn the council’s decision.
“We’ll get the votes, and it will be a good example of democracy in action,” he said