Opinion / Resolution of the Parking Commission
This is to express the New Canaan Parking Commission's disapproval of the action by the Planning and Zoning Commission to approve its Fee-in-lieu-of-Parking Regulation that will allow developers to increase the commercial space on a site outside the "Magic Circle" without having to provide mandated additional parking by paying a small fee to the town. P&Z approved the measure in a single meeting a few days before Christmas without adequate notice to townspeople, the parking commission and other interested parties. Where is the transparency and fair dealing that is expected of the town government?
It should be noted that a very similar proposal was made by the same cadre within P&Z a few years ago. Sufficient notice was given on that occasion and the proposal was soundly rejected.
The objections to the new regulation are many:
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The fees are tiny compared to the cost of providing a parking space. Parking spaces created by tiering a previously owned town parking lot cost at least $25,000 to $50,000 to build. This does not include the cost/value of the underlying land which had to be acquired. Thus, the $7,500 to $15,000 fees bear no relation to the cost the town will incur to reproduce what the landowner has heretofore been required to provide. And any comparison is false, since parking spaces created on the second or third floor of a communal parking garage several blocks away cannot be compared to the utility of having a parking space at the establishment where one shops, eats, works or lives;
The value of properties that can take advantage of the regulation would be immediately increased by having the parking obligation forever waived, and that developers will jump at the chance to take advantage of this bargain. Existing property holders who paid premium prices to buy properties within the Magic Circle or who are providing parking will be disadvantaged comparatively;
Customers, employees and tenants won't be able to find a parking space. Currently, when someone needs to go to an establishment outside of the Magic Circle, one can usually find convenient parking at the establishment itself (for example, Brandman's, Walgreens, etc.). Why is that parking there? Because it was required by zoning rules. What happens when the requirement has been waived? On-site parking will not be adequate, and people will be forced to park on nearby streets (Pine, Grove, Forest, Cherry, Cross, etc.). If anyone has looked lately, there is little free parking on these streets today. It may be a huge parking problem tomorrow if the Fee-in-lieu-of-Parking Regulation is implemented;
Town taxpayers will not benefit from the Fee-in-lieu-of-Parking Regulation fees. Anyone familiar with town finances knows that the proposed fees would be a virtual drop in the bucket and swallowed up in the annual budget, which is currently more than $100 million annually. No one would suggest that town taxes would be lowered as a result;
Moreover, any tiny immediate fiscal benefit to town finances will be more than offset by the permanent loss of parking spaces. The need for the spaces created by a build-out will not go away. The Fee-in-lieu-of-Parking Regulation fees will not be sufficient to pay for an equal number of town provided parking spaces. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the fees would be used to actually create any additional parking spaces, and if any were created, it is unlikely that the parking spaces would not be where they are needed (at the establishment);
Landowners and merchants who are not planning a current expansion may find their neighbor's tenants, customers and clients parking in their lots, since their neighbor's parking is insufficient;
Defenders of the Fee-in-lieu-of-Parking Regulation may argue that we have nothing to worry about because under the regulation approval of any special request will require a two-thirds vote of the Planning & Zoning Commission. But P&Z is populated with the members who are pushing the proposal. This is like having the President ask for the two term limit to be dropped from the Constitution and the President saying, "Don't worry -- I will make sure that the new flexibility will not be misused." That would be no safeguard at all, which is why the Presidential term limit was put into the Constitution in the first place. Everyone knows the sort of influence that developers and others can bring to bear on the rules that restrict them. For this reason, zoning (and parking permit) rules were made part of the town code and other statutes to limit the discretion of elected officers and appointed commissions and ensure fair application of the rules;
Technically, the regulation may be ultra vires (beyond the power of P&Z) because it purports to have the fees collected go into a fund to be spent on parking facilities, but there is no such fund and P&Z does not have the authority to create such a fund. The Town Code would have to be amended to create such a fund, requiring approval of the Board of Finance and Board of Selectman. (Please note that the parking commission has been requesting the Board of Selectmen to create a parking fund for years, so we are not against the idea, but we want the funding to come from parking permit and meter revenue and are aware of the statutory impediments to the creation of such a fund);
The parking restriction is one of the main rules preventing Main and Elm streets from building up. Thankfully, the new rules appear to retain this protection in a new Section 8.3.A.2.d, but this is not entirely clear. The new provision limits P&Z's power to grant variances for the number of parking spaces required for any property located in the Retail B, Business A, Business B or Business C zones (aka Magic Circle). However, the Fee-in-lieu-of-Parking language is broad and appears to give P&Z the right to grant a "special permit" to avoid the parking requirements in every zone. Is a "special permit" a variance? One would hope so. The interaction between the new provisions is not clear and there has not been an opportunity for the town attorney to examine this. Thus, it seems that protection against excess development within the old Magic Circle would not be dead, but could be on life support.
It seems fairly clear that P&Z already has waivers in mind for developments on Grove Street, Forest Street, etc. and may have already promised to change the rules to allow those developments to proceed with reduced requirements. Why should these new developments have lesser requirements than Walgreens/Pine Social and Brandman's had in their recent developments? If the Planning and Zoning Commission really believes that such waivers would be in the town's best interest, let's have a public forum to discuss the specific deals and see what the voters say.
Taking all this into account, it is a terrible bargain for the town to allow developers to waive their parking obligations by collecting a small one-time fee. New Canaan needs commercial parking, it does not need one-time token fees. There was no good reason to change the zoning requirements regarding parking and they should be restored.
It would be one thing if the town had excess parking, but New Canaan has a shortage of commercial parking (which is partially being disguised by the recession). It has been suggested that the town may tier the Locust Street parking lot in connection with the town hall project and this could change the commercial parking situation. True, but it would only change the parking situation in the Locust Street side of the town commercial center. Construction of additional commercial parking on Locust Street would do little to help the parking situation in the Park/Grove/Pine street area or anywhere else in town.
We are requesting that the citizens of New Canaan demand that this measure be stopped and call for an inquiry by the selectmen on how this happened and what's going to be done in the future to prevent it from happening again.
Unanimous Resolution of the Parking Commission of New Canaan
Jan. 6, 2012