Mayor sees ‘negative effect,’ with parking ‘not replaceable’
As originally published in the Record Journal, Tuesday November 15, 2011
By Robert Cyr
WALLINGFORD — Voters turned out in near-record numbers Monday night and overturned the Town Council’s controversial decision to enter into a 30-year lease with downtown property owners to upgrade their common parking lot behind Simpson Court in return for free parking.
The referendum, just six days after the municipal election, drew 6,888 voters, with 2,768 in favor of the lease and 4,120 against. To make the process binding, 20 percent, or 4,956 people, needed to vote. More than half that number had already voted by 1 p.m., with polls closing at 8 p.m.
The referendum drew almost 28 percent of the 24,780 registered voters in town; the Nov. 8 election drew 39.8 percent.
Supporters of the lease, including Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. and the owners of four buildings along North Main Street, fronting Simpson Court, considered the defeat a loss for Wallingford.
Dickinson said it was a major setback for economic development and he didn’t know what would be next for the parking lot or the continuation of free parking at the lot, which the public has used since 1961.
That year, the town entered into a year-to-year lease with the owners of the properties that stipulated that the town would maintain the lot. Five years ago, when owners said the town was not holding up its end of the agreement, the town began working on contract language that went into the current lease agreement: The town would spend up to $500,000 in set aside Electric Department revenues to repave and install lighting and landscaping at the lot between Church and Center streets, in return for continued free parking.
“There will be a decided negative effect and it will be difficult to move in any direction,” Dickinson said. “I know people have lots of other suggestions for use of the money, but if we should lose those parking places, that’s not replaceable by anything else.”
But lease opponents, including two members of the Town Council, said it was inappropriate to invest town money in private property. Robert Gross, a resident who has run unsuccessfully for the council, started a petition drive a day after the council’s decision, raising the 2,491 signatures needed to force a referendum.
Lease opponents have also said that the money should be used to repair the Wooding-Caplan property, a town-owned lot sitting vacant behind the Police Department and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on North Main Street, close to the shops on Simpson Court. The parcel has been a proposed site of a new police station.
At least one property owner threatened to pull out of the year-to-year lease if the 30year agreement were to be overturned. John McGuire, who owns two of the four buildings involved, has said he’d consider restricting access to his lots and possibly charging for parking. He was not available for comment Monday.
The opposing camps set up large gatherings on opposite sides of town Monday night to await the final count. Christopher Diorio, vice chairman of the Republican Town Committee and head of the political action committee supporting the lease, reserved the lounge of Michael’s Trattoria on Center Street.
Diorio was joined by several town councilors, including Jerry Farrell Jr. and John Le-Tourneau, who owns Wallingford Lamp and Shade, down the street from the restaurant. LeTourneau said he knew voter turnout had been high early in the day.
“I guess it was steady all day,” LeTourneau said.
Diorio said he was disappointed by the results but glad so many had shown up for the vote. He has spent the past several weeks trying to garner support for the leases and getting people to the polls, he said.
“The other side definitely got their vote out and the townspeople spoke,” he said. “Life’s going to go on, and the town of Wallingford will move forward. This will go on to the town government and property owners, and we’ll see what happens.”
Inside the bar and lounge of the Italian restaurant, local business owners — including some who were part of the lease agreement — talked of a vague future.
Fred Ulbrich is chairman of the board of Ulbrich Steel and owner of the former library building at 60 N. Main St., one of the four buildings with a lease agreement. He said he did not know what he would do with the 22 parking spaces allotted him in the nullified lease but said he would consider charging for parking. The leases outlined 130 parking spaces with 90 passes for the buildings’ owners to give to businesses and employees.
“If I have to charge, yes,” he said.
The town has had an easement through the parking lot to connect Church and Center streets since 1961, and that may have to change now, he said.
“There’s going to be a real push to take away that right-of-way. It served its purpose,” he said.
Across town, at the Gross residence on Long Hill Road, the street was packed with cars and a party was in full swing to celebrate the win. It isn’t the first time Gross has teamed up with Geno Zandri, owner of the Zandri’s Stillwood Inn, on a referendum.
The pair successfully petitioned and forced a referendum on the Wooding-Caplan property five years ago. And although they lost their push to have a local developer build in the lot, more than 7,000 people went to the polls, Gross said.
“I had anxiety going into today — you never know how the voter’s going to vote,” he said.
Zandri, chairman of the PAC that fought the leases, said he was glad the referendum was over.
“We put a lot of hard work into this, and we’re happy with the results,” he said.