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Friday, September 14, 2012

Simpson lot owners have ‘skin in the game’

As published in the Record Journal Friday September 14, 2012

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

WALLINGFORD - Some Simpson Court property owners are looking to dispel negative notions about their long-term agreement with the town to provide public parking in their back lots.

This week, some town councilors said the property owners would get a cushy deal if the town pursued a state grant for $500,000 for maintenance and upgrades, including lighting, to the parking lot behind Simpson Court.

In the plan, the owners would also put in $20,000 each for the work and be reimbursed $10,000. The grant allows for this type of public-private partnership. The project would also expand the public parking area from the current 60 or so feet at the back of the lot to encompass more of the until- now privately used part of the lot, and upgrade the whole area. The council is expected to vote Sept. 25 on whether to allow town staff to submit a grant application. “They get their property completely refurbished. Every other business in this town collects their rent, puts some of this aside for maintenance and upkeep — these businesses don’t have to,” Town Councilor Jason Zandri, a Democrat, said at Tuesday night’s council meeting.

But some Simpson Court property owners say the project is a way for the town to make up for the years it has neglected the lot.

“The lot is really too far gone to do regular maintenance,” said Mary Pimentel, part owner of North Main Street Realty, which has owned buildings at 36-40 N. Main St. since 1985.

The town built the parking lot on Simpson Court property in 1961. Since then, it has leased the lot from property owners on a year-to-year basis for $1, and in the agreements has said it would provide maintenance on the lot.

But aside from yearly snowplowing, Pimentel hasn’t seen any repairs done on the lot since she purchased the property, she said.

While several councilors have been talking about making sure owners have “skin in the game” by putting more money into the upgrades, Pimentel said the owners already have made a major investment.

“Our stance is we do have ‘skin in the game;’ our skin is the property,” Pimentel said. “We own that property, we pay taxes on the property, we don’t get any money at all. Their payment is that they will maintain the property.”

The five properties have four owners: North Main Street Realty, F&M Bank Wallingford LLC, Masonic Temple Corp., and Fred Ulbrich Jr.

Ron Hansen, president of Masonic Compass Lodge No. 9, which owns 48 N. Main St., said that if the application for the grant is rejected by the council, he may talk with other property owners about filing a lawsuit. Despite property owners’ paying taxes on the property since 1961, the town hasn’t held up its end of the bargain, he said.

“The town never maintained the property. Now it’s in disrepair all these years later,” Hansen said. He said he and other Masons constantly pick up trash and pluck sumac trees that take root in the lot. But he said that in the past few months, the town’s Public Works Department has come in and filled some holes and made other repairs that stanched the growth. Hansen said that work is the only time he’s seen the town do anything on the parking lot.

The owners of F&M and Ulbrich could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Both Hansen and Pimentel said the town had been talking with property owners about making major repairs and upgrades to the lot since 1999, and plans had been in place a long time, until they were knocked down in a November 2011 referendum that some believe was stoked by partisan politics in an election year.

After the referendum, Jack McGuire, owner of two of the four properties, pulled out of the longstanding lease agreement and made his portion of the lot private.

Dickinson said he hopes the outcome is different this time. “This has been public parking since 1961. To have it not be public parking — I’m concerned that it will have a negative effect,” Dickinson said. “We’re actually losing parking, that is a concern to me.”

He rejects the idea that the town has not maintained the lot, saying that much of the lot that is in poor condition is the private portion.

“Look at all the lumps and bumps: A lot of that isn’t the town’s,” Dickinson said. “It’s another of the complexities of this, with all the variables that can certainly affect a person’s perceptions.”

Councilor Craig Fishbein, a Republican, said Thursday that he would likely be in favor of having the town resurface the lot, but he’s not in favor of the major upgrades such as lighting and the reconstruction of a retaining wall on the lot. For those types of improvements, he said, the town should ask for $50,000 from each property owner and $100,000 from Holy Trinity School for the retaining wall determined to be on the school’s property.

“What I have said from the very beginning of this — their contribution should be the same as the town’s. If they don’t have the money, we put liens on the property that are payable over 30 years,” Fishbein said. He said he could see another referendum vote coming the town’s way if it submits the grant and receives the funding.