As published in the Record Journal, Sunday November 13, 2011
By Robert Cyr
WALLINGFORD — A referendum on the lease agreements for a series of adjacent parking lots in the center of town is set for Monday, just five days after the municipal election.
In August, the Town Council agreed to enter into 30-year lease agreements with the owners of four commercial buildings along North Main Street. The leases stipulate that the town will spend up to a half-million dollars to repave and refurbish the parking area behind the buildings with the guarantee that the property will remain open for free municipal parking.
A group of residents collected enough signatures to force a referendum on repeal of the council resolution. While the signatures of only 10 percent of registered voters were needed to force Monday’s referendum, the Town Charter requires voter turnout of at least 20 percent for the referendum to be successful. On Election Day, 39.8 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
Two political action committees have formed over the issue — one supporting the lease agreements and one against the plan — and the opposing signs quickly became common throughout town. The town had been in a similar, year-to-year lease with property owners there since 1961.
Town Councilor Nicholas Economopoulos, a Democrat who opposes the deal, says it’s inappropriate to spend town money on private property and supports using eminent domain to secure a section of the parking area and void any lease agreements. It’s the latest idea in a cauldron of talk between residents.
“It’s a heck of a word and I don’t like to use it,” he said of eminent domain, “but if you’re just taking a piece of land and you’re going to use it for what it was used for in the first place, it’s not as bad.”
Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. and lease supporters have called the parking deal vital to the attractiveness and business health of the downtown area. The money for the improvements would come out of a fund given to the town by the Wallingford Electric Division every year for capital non-recurring projects.
One property owner in the lease, John McGuire, has said he would bar public parking if the referendum overturns the agreements. McGuire, who headed a push for the agreements after he said the town was not maintaining the lots properly, said the town is really spreading up to $500,000 over the years since 1961 until 30 years from now.
The lease stipulates that business owners will be able to give out up to 90 parking passes to their employees to use any of the planned 130 parking spaces for more than four hours. Public parking will be restricted to four hours.
Republican Town Councilor John LeTourneau, who owns Wallingford Lamp and Shade on Center Street, supports the lease agreements.
“We have to have a clean, vibrant, well-lit area to attract businesses,” he said. “How can we ever think of wooing a business when our downtown doesn’t look good? It’s our front yard.”
But Republican Town Councilor Craig Fishbein said last week that the money from the Electric Division should be put toward repairing the town-owned Wooding-Caplan property for use as a municipal parking lot.
Polling places for the referendum will be open Monday at the Lyman Hall High School Vo-Ag Center, Moran Middle School and the Wallingford Senior Center from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.