In the 19th century, the British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Maybe this doesn’t apply in Wallingford because we have been consumed by more adult-rated topics.
We filed federal and state tax returns; we worried about whether the Huskies would win the college basketball championships; we rolled our eyes over John Rowland; we’re fixated on the Ukraine; and now we’re also mulling over a new mill rate. The great poet need not be proven wrong, however, just because we talk of mostly politics and taxes. We can fold Tennyson’s observations into our lusty budgetary rites of spring, with tender murmurs of love — love for more municipal property tax breaks that is, to better grow our grand list.
The town council started down this promiscuous path in March by awarding Winston Hospitality, Inc. a sweet tax deal on a new hotel project. The council wanted to entice Winston to quickly finish the half-built hotel on Rte. 68 and turn it into an upscale Hilton Garden Inn. It therefore awarded this developer more tax benefits than the Economic Development Commission or the mayor ever fantasized about. The legal basis of the deal is a state law, which provides that the town can give tax breaks to the developers of big, new projects. The town could give a developer investing at least $3 million, for example, an unlimited property tax break for 7 years. Similarly, a new project costing $500,000 could get total tax abatement for 2 years. Even a modest project costing just $25,000 could get a 50 percent tax reduction for 3 years.
Why, therefore, stop now with tax breaks to only the Hilton Garden Inn? While the moment is right, let’s spread our affection for tax incentives to an area that could actually benefit from a little extra love: The Incentive Housing Zone, which is in an area around the train station in downtown Wallingford.
The purpose of the IHZ is to incentivize developers to convert distressed, under-developed, and unsightly properties into spiffy new projects by allowing them to build for more density than the current zoning regulations allow. The requirements are challenging, however, and a project would involve substantial cost and risk. Old buildings would have to be renovated or torn down. Contiguous properties would have to be joined together to make room for larger buildings that allow for adequate parking. Given the risks and the costs, if ever there were a need for an incentive to redevelop, it would be in the downtown area.
The mayor recently wrote to the state about the town’s application for approval of an IHZ. He said that Wallingford’s Incentive Housing Zone would provide much needed lower cost housing; attract private sector capital and focus it where most needed; assist new and existing businesses by reinvigorating the pedestrian environment and increasing the number of customers; and strengthen Wallingford’s tax base. In short, a successful IHZ is a cause at least as worthy of tax relief as the Winston hotel project. Why not apply, therefore, the rationale for the tax break given to the Hilton Garden Inn to projects that qualify under the new Incentive Housing Zone regulations?
A tax incentive program for the IHZ should be adopted in advance, through the Economic Development Commission. Specified tax benefits under the program could be applied equally to similar projects, so the council would not be put in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly negotiate with developers, many of whom might be local. A plan adopted in advance would also avoid the unseemly situation of giving a tax incentive to one developer and a more lucrative incentive to another, giving rise to suspicions of favoritism or worse. Maybe a tax incentive plan mated to the IHZ would be a fruitful pairing.
If only Tennyson were here to write a poem about that.
Mike Brodinsky is a former town councilor, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee and host of public access show “Citizen Mike.”