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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lot of contention over lot repair plans

Wallingford council likely to discuss new idea tonight

As published in the Record Journal Tuesday September 11, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD - Nearly a year after voters knocked down a plan for the town to repair the parking lot behind Simpson Court, town officials are pitching another idea: using state funding. But some town councilors feel it’s just last year’s plan repackaged.

During tonight’s meeting, the Town Council is expected to discuss Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s proposal to apply for a $500,000 state grant to repair the privately owned but publicly used lot behind the buildings along Simpson Court with access from Center Street.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a plan last November that would have allowed the town to make $500,000 worth of repairs to the lot, which the town has leased for public parking from surrounding business owners since 1961. The town has hoped to make the investment and maintain the lot in exchange for a 30year lease.

“This has already been brought forward to the residents. The council pushed it through and the residents pushed back. Now all this is doing is coming back. It’s under the guise of a state grant,” said Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat, Monday. Zandri has written two columns adamantly opposing public funding for the lot in his blog over the last week.

But Dickinson said the proposal differs from last year’s bid.

“It’s not the same project. It’s financed differently,” Dickinson said. Instead of having all repairs paid by the town, if Wallingford gets the grant, the repairs would be paid for both by the state and by owners of abutting properties. The state money would come through the Main Street Investment Fund grant program, administered by the Office of Policy and Management. The deadline to apply for the grant is Sept. 28.

According to the proposal, property owners would be asked to contribute $20,000 to the project and receive $10,000 in reimbursement from the state funding. Owners include F&M Bank Wallingford LLC, Masonic Temple Corp., Fred Ulbrich Jr., Gail DeBaise, Barbara Farrell, Mary Lee Pimental and North Main Street Realty. Holy Trinity School would be asked to pay just $10,000, and wouldn’t receive any reimbursement.

The money would go to what some say are much needed repairs. This includes fixing a concrete retaining wall on the property of Holy Trinity School, which administrators say is falling apart. The school came to the council on June 26 to ask if they would help fund repairs to the wall since Holy Trinity administrators believe the town built the wall and lot, though no documentation to that effect has been found.

After being assigned by the council in June to look into the issue, Town Attorney Janis Small said in a letter provided to the council last week that the town has no liability for the wall.

Zandri wants to see a case study done on the lot to see how many people actually use it and if they would be just as well served using the free parking at Town Hall, or some of the other sites throughout town. He said he counted more than 600 open spaces in the downtown area over the weekend.

“There are plenty of spaces. There’s demand 12 times a year,” Zandri said, noting town center concerts and other special events. “Any other time, the Town Hall parking lot is wide open.”

Zandri said he’d like to see the money go to the lots the town owns outright.

Town Councilor John Le-Tourneau, a Republican, disagreed, saying that he’d driven downtown one night this weekend and every lot was packed, with cars even parked on the Wooding-Caplan property which has not yet been paved.

Dickinson said he believes keeping the Simpson lot open is vital to downtown.

“Without the public parking, the businesses don’t get clientele and the businesses start closing. It’s not a good situation for the entire community,” Dickinson said.

LeTourneau said he hasn’t made a decision on the proposal, and would wait until the council discusses it tonight.

Vinny Cervoni, a Republican councilor, said he thinks the town’s new plan is good — with business owners putting in for costs this time around. And it’s necessary, he said, since the town’s lease agreements with the businesses to use the lot say the business owners have to maintain it.

“It puts skin in the game for them,” Cervoni said. “I think it’s an attempt to solve the problem and reduce the direct exposure to the town taxpayers.”

Councilor Craig Fishbein, also a Republican, opposes the plan, saying the money is still coming from taxpayers, and that the town should focus its energies on the Wooding-Caplan property, where the town plans to create a 100-space temporary lot this fall.

Cervoni said the state money comes from Wallingford residents, but that he has no jurisdiction over those taxes.

“Sitting on the Town Council, I have no control over state or federal taxation of us. If there is money out there that will provide benefit to the town without directly impacting the taxpayers — I think we have an obligation to look at that money,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Dave Zajac / Record-Journal

Children play near a deteriorating retaining wall in the parking lot at Holy Trinity School Monday. Wallingford’s Town Council is expected to discuss a new proposal for fixing up the lot. Unlike one voters rejected last November, this one calls for the use of state grant money.