October 6 – STONINGTON – Large numbers of residents flocked to the polls on Tuesday to categorically reject a proposed tax break for the developer of an 82-unit affordable housing project on the former Campbell Grain site in downtown Pawcatuck.
The vote was 2,764 to 1,173 to overturn the August city assembly vote that approved the 10-year tax break of $ 697,748 for Winn Development of Boston. Nearly 4,000 voters – 3,937, or 27% of registered voters in the city – voted, the most for a referendum in over 34 years. The opposition was led by voters in Pawcatuck, who rejected the fixed rate assessment by 1,539 votes to 314.
Residents also voted 2,106 to 1,816 to reject a draft ordinance that would have banned a cannabis establishment in the city. This means that the city can now license the operation of a marijuana store and a grower / grower.
The retail business is not only expected to be lucrative for its potential operator because of its proximity to Rhode Island, which has not legalized marijuana, but also for the city, which can impose a 3% tax on its sales. This would translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual tax revenue for the city.
Tax relief has caused controversy
The defeat of the tax break was a blow to city officials who worked for years to develop the site as part of efforts to revitalize downtown Pawcatuck. They said a loss now means Winn will struggle to secure the $ 20 million in state funding and tax credits that demand a contribution from the host municipality. The vote, however, does not kill the project, which could still be built.
Dave Hammond, chairman of the Economic Development Commission, whose members focused on revitalizing downtown Pawcatuck and worked to attract a developer to the grain yard for years, said he was “really, really disappointed”.
He called it “shameful” that people “imagine and prioritize” issues such as parking and traffic rather than creating affordable housing for residents.
“It’s hard to understand their motivation for reversing this,” he said. “But we will continue to work to attract investment to ease the burden on taxpayers, including those who voted against this project.”
Winn’s project manager Matt Robayna said Tuesday evening his company would still seek state funding, but said it would face an uphill battle with other projects receiving municipal contributions.
“We are still very attached to this project,” he said. “We believe it will provide the necessary affordable housing, bring economic development to the downtown area and generate income for the city.
He said Winn is expected to close the $ 697,000 gap with money from other sources.
Robayna said that although Winn was surprised by the amount of opposition, he said he understood affordable housing could be a “burning issue for communities”.
The first woman chosen, Danielle Chesebrough, called the size of the opposition “disheartening”, saying part of it was posted on social media by locals who did not understand the facts and “played on it. people’s fears “.
But Chesebrough said it was time to move forward and called on residents to get involved early in the process by attending meetings or speaking to her or other city officials. In addition to criticizing and pointing out flaws, she called on residents to come up with solutions and opportunities.
“We want to move forward in a positive way. We need people to engage,” she said.
“Public service is not easy, but it is important, and we sincerely ask you to choose to stay involved and help us identify solutions to the challenges we face as a community and take advantage of the opportunities that exist. are available to us. It is much easier to criticize each other. , but what we need are people willing to come together to deliver solutions that will work for our community, ”she added.
But Pawcatuck voters were clear on their opposition on Tuesday afternoon.
“Everything about it stinks,” resident Colleen Schultz said of the planned four-story building at the end of Coggswell Street, next to the Pawcatuck River and the Amtrak railway line.
She cited a lack of parking (92 spaces were offered), restricted access on the narrow street, a location next to the railroad tracks and giving a developer a tax break that residents don’t get. , as her reasons for opposing the plan.
Voter Anne Sorel said there had not been much publicity about the town hall vote and said she felt city officials “were pulling the wool over us. eyes”.
Her husband, Jeff, said that with 75% of the project funded by state grants and tax credits, as well as a 10-year tax break from the city of $ 697,748, Winn “was fucking himself like a bandit “.
Pawcatuck voters were also concerned about the traffic the project would generate in an already congested downtown and pointed out that other newly built affordable housing in Pawcatuck has yet to be rented.
But Chesebrough said it was misinformation disseminated by opponents. She said city officials monitor vacancies, and there aren’t any. On average, she said, every affordable housing facility in the city has a waiting list of 2 months to 2 years.
Opponents of the tax break also said the building would be too large and unattractive, and questioned why the wealthier areas of the city, such as Mystic and the Borough, do not have affordable housing.
Residents at the August 9 town hall meeting voted 71-36 to approve the fixed-rate assessment, but a group of residents then collected the necessary signatures to force the referendum vote. While Winn Development would have saved $ 697,748 in taxes over 10 years, it would have paid $ 695,000 in taxes to the city over the same period. If the parcel remains vacant and undeveloped, it will generate less than $ 30,000 in taxes over the same period.
The project envisions a mix of studios, one, two and three bedroom units that would be rented out at affordable prices for people earning 30%, 50% and 80% of the median income in the area. The project would also contain units at market rate. Plans also include extending the Pawcatuck Riverwalk public walkway to the property.
Winn is seeking $ 20 million in funding from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and the Connecticut Department of Housing through a competitive grant process that requests matching from the host municipality.
City officials see the site as crucial for downtown redevelopment and said the project would provide more housing options for working-class residents who are struggling to find affordable housing. They say it would generate more pedestrian traffic downtown, which would favor existing businesses and possibly stimulate more investment. And that would generate a lot more tax revenue for the city than it does today.
Marijuana Sales OK with Voters
Voters The Day spoke to in Pawcatuck on Tuesday were much less interested in the second question, about marijuana sales and production in town, saying they either support the idea or really don’t care.
“We should have been doing this for decades,” Voter Justin VanDuine said of authorizing cannabis sales.
The proposed ordinance would have banned a “cannabis establishment” in the city. It defines such an establishment as a grower, dispensary, grower, microcultivator, retailer, hybrid retailer, food and beverage manufacturer, product manufacturer, product packager, delivery service, or retailer. carrier.
Under state law that legalized the recreational use of marijuana and came into effect on July 1, municipalities have the discretion to allow or ban cannabis businesses within their borders. , as well as regulating the signs and hours of operation of these businesses.
The law allows one retailer and one retail producer for every 25,000 people, which means the Town and Borough of Stonington can each have one producer and one retailer. Municipalities can also charge cannabis businesses up to $ 50,000 for additional policing and infrastructure needed to open businesses. Cities can also impose a 3% tax on marijuana sales.