The New Canaan Town Council agreed Dec. 11 to submit an application for a $500,000 state grant to be used toward the Locust Avenue parking lot project.
The vote didn't pass without scrutiny, however. Councilman Roger Williams said he doesn't think the council knows enough about the Locust lot usage.
"I think we're being rushed into this," Williams said. "We're running because of a grant application ... I feel like we've been asked to do this because here's an opportunity to get half a million dollars from the state."
The Small Town Economic Assistance Program provides grants to fund economic development, quality-of-life and community conservation projects for small towns in Connecticut. The grants are awarded on a rolling basis, so the earlier the application, the more chances the town has to receive it. Applications are due by April 15.
Most members of the council seemed to disagree with Williams.
"I don't think we're rushing into this," Councilman John Engel said. "This is a priority."
The project, which was approved in June 2012, would turn the lot into a tiered structure, resulting in 100 new spaces. The estimated cost of the project is $3.3 million, but the only amount that has been appropriated so far is $200,000, which is to be used toward engineering and architectural design. In order to apply for the grant, the council voted to increase that number by $500,000.
Williams said the town instead should apply for grants for road projects. He also said he believes the state is awarding most grants to projects related to storm management.
"Anything left over from Sandy or anything we wanted to do to prepare for the next storm, if we want to build an emergency operations center," Williams said, "would be extremely favorably looked upon."
Town Planner Steve Kleppin, who presented the application draft to the council, said this is the time to move forward with the project. Kleppin said the Locust lot is "an ideal location" for parking downtown. The town filed for a grant for the same project last year, but it was denied.
According to this year's application draft, "the proposed parking deck would directly benefit the merchants and business owners on Forest Street and the north end of Main Street as well as free-up parking behind the Town Hall, which also benefits the Main and Elm Street businesses."
First Selectman Robert Mallozzi said the council was free to change the application if it wished, but he said the Locust lot project would go on regardless of its decision.
"I instructed Steve to direct (the grant) at this, but if you folks feel it's better directed at the roads, have at it. Let it be directed at the roads," Mallozzi said. "We just won't be able to offset it with the $500,000. Either way, the town's still going to be spending money on a project called `Locust Avenue Parking Lot.' "
Councilman Tucker Murphy, who's also executive director for the Chamber of Commerce, said there have been several complaints about the lack of parking downtown. Kleppin mentioned a 2012 study that showed that New Canaan had a deficit of 300 parking spaces, compared to similar village settings.
The estimated duration of the construction is 10 months. Even if the town is awarded the grant, Kleppin said, it is not obligated to accept it.
Despite the overwhelming support for moving forward with the project, Williams still didn't seem convinced.
"I'm not saying we don't have a parking problem," Williams said. "I'm just saying, let's take our shots where we think we have a better opportunity to get" the grant.
Williams ended up voting for submitting the application, but he voted against increasing the project limit by $500,000. Both votes passed.
The last time New Canaan received a STEAP grant was in 2009 for the completion of the Market Demand Study, according to the state's Office of Fiscal Analysis. The town also received STEAP grants in 2002, 2006 and 2008. In June 2006, for instance, New Canaan received $500,000 for the dredging of Mill Pond.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson