Town Council passes lumberyard TOD grant proposal
The Town Council voted 6-5, with one abstention, to approve a transit-oriented development grant application for a feasibility study exploring possible senior housing and decked parking in the Lumberyard Parking Lot Tuesday night. The meeting, which lasted more than three and half hours, was full of, at times, contentious discussion from commuters, public officials and other residents.
"It is not a given for any of us in this room that we are going to have the right, the opportunity, to live in New Canaan for the rest of our days. We may or may not," said resident David Wilson.
"My economic situation could change. I might desire to live here but I might not have that opportunity, so while I think it's a laudable goal, I think we have to be pragmatic that it may or may not be an achievable goal."
The grant application would be on behalf of the Senior Health Care and Housing Policy Development Team's Phase III initiative, chaired by Judy Bentley.
According to the official application, available online on the town's website, "the town wishes to study the feasibility of adding additional commuter parking through decking the existing lot and then proposing senior-oriented housing atop the structure and possibly include a commercial medical facility through a public-
private partnership. We are hopeful that this proposal will provide the framework for the future development of the site, so the town can partner with a private entity(s) to limit the actual time and costs associated with a project of this scope."
The request for funds of $495,000 would include an engineering study, design charrette, architectural consulting services, a transit-oriented development overlay zone, traffic impact and market analysis as well as financial and economic benefits.
The majority of the crowd in Town Hall Tuesday night consisted of commuters and residents who do not support development of the lumberyard because of its controversial past involved with Avalon, as well as issues with parking and congestion should construction ever take place there.
Still, there were those who supported the idea of looking into the property to see what can be done beyond just a simple parking lot.
"I'm for (the grant proposal) because it gives us a chance to explore opportunities with that space," George McAvoy said.
Town Planner Steve Kleppin reiterated those thoughts of exploring opportunities.
"I think people are reacting as if we are proposing to construct something," he said. "Should we be fortunate enough to receive a grant, there will be numerous opportunities between receipt of the grant to the implementation phase for the public to weigh in on the project, but also for it to be terminated. Many of the concerns we've heard so far can't be addressed until we do the study."
What concerned many Town Council members was the idea of the state getting involved with the lumberyard property.
"My No. 1 issue is losing sovereignty on this property," said Town Councilor Robert Hamill, who voted against the proposal.
"We've obviously undergone a tremendous battle in the past to acquire this property and to let the state's nose under the tent to me is a risk."
Council member Tom O'Dea also had doubts about the state's involvement but believed there was no way the state could ever exercise eminent domain on the lumberyard even if the town used grant money to do a study or other projects.
At that point, council member Paul Foley agreed that the state could not use eminent domain but cautioned its ability to use other methods to exert control. It was that small possibility that forced him to vote against the proposal.
"The state then repeats what they tried to do before -- grab our parking under the guise of increasing ridership. The state can come in, they will bond it, they will put a tier on it. They get cars off the Merritt Parkway and it provides for the greater good that the state always tries to do," Foley said.
"I am very concerned about them doing that now. I'm concerned that (if) we start putting applications out there that we just expose ourselves to that scrutiny."
Council members John Emert, Christine Hussey and Kit Devereaux agreed with Hamill and Foley on their fears of state involvement and voted against the measure. The other members, with the exception of Steve Karl who abstained because his business is across from the lumberyard, felt the state would not exert control and were put at ease by Kleppin and First Selectman Jeb Walker's assurance that they could reject the grant after approval if they feel uncomfortable with it at all.
"We've never had strings before on a state grant," Walker said. "We'll see what happens, but if we don't like the conditions that come with the award, should we get one, then we reject the grant. It's as simple as that."
Walker also confirmed that decision would be brought to the Town Council and all necessary town bodies before it is made.
With the grant proposal approved, the state will make a decision on which municipalities gets the award by the first week of October, according to Kleppin.