SOUTHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats have clashed over land deals approved or considered by the Town Council as elections draw near.
Democrats have criticized an open space purchase and a land swap plan that they said rewarded Republicans or their allies. Republicans defended the open space purchase as valuable and the land swap as an attempt at a safety improvement on West Street.
Here are the details of the two deals and what both parties have claimed about them.Town purchase of 1954 Mount Vernon Road
In 2020, the Town Council voted to buy a 16-acre wooded parcel of land on Mount Vernon Road that was partially owned by Republican Town Councilor Bill Dziedzic. The purchase price was $130,000.
Dziedzic didn’t take part in the vote. Dziedzic and other town officials said he also abstained from conversations and negotiations relating to the purchase.
Council Democrats opposed the purchase while Council Republicans, excluding Dziedzic, voted in favor. The purchase followed a prior attempt by Dziedzic’s business partner Joseph Calvanese III to sell the property for $230,000.
Town leaders considered buying the property in 2018, according to correspondence provided by the town in response to a Freedom of Information request. Dawn Miceli, a former council Democrat, was chairwoman of the open space acquisition committee at the time. The price - $230,000 - was deemed too high.A suitable property?
Democrats opposed the purchase, saying even at $130,000 the property wasn’t worth the town’s open space money.
Ed Pocock III, a Democratic council candidate and former Republican council chairman, said it’s a single-family lot that’s largely rocky elevation.
“It’s a single house lot that’s it. It backs up against the mountain,” he said. “Is this something that’s really open space?”
Dziedzic’s company, Precision Property Management, bought the land for $60,000. Pocock said he found the gains made by the company during the sale “incredible” and said that most sellers wouldn’t have gotten another chance at a sale after being rebuffed by the town once.
Dziedzic, who’s running for reelection, said his company likely got a worse deal due to his position. He and his partner accepted the lowest of three appraisals of the property, which included the town’s own appraisal of the land at $215,000.
Rather than go with the lowest appraisal, a seller and buyer usually agree to an average or split the difference between appraisals he said.
“If that was anyone else, they would have received a higher sales price,” Dziedzic said.
Paul Chaplinsky, a Republican councilor running for reelection, was among the Republicans who voted in favor of the open space purchase. While buying the land only prevents a single family home from being built, there were other benefits to public ownership of the property.
“It has a trail on it, it has a waterfall on it,” Chaplinsky said. “When I hear it’s steep, that doesn't necessarily mean it isn’t valuable. There’s hiking, there’s water.”
The Southington Land Trust had suggested the property for open space land acquisition in 2018.
Val DePaolo, a Democratic councilor running for reelection, said the public perception of a deal involving a sitting councilor made her uncomfortable. She joined other Democrats in voting against the purchase.
“It didn’t look good,” she said Friday.Ownership and disclosure
Democrats said council leaders should have made it clear that Dziedzic was an owner of the property. Dziedzic said that was disclosed when he took office and that ownership disclosures are available for the public at Town Hall.
He objected to a Democratic press release this week that incorrectly listed another owner of the property. The release also said he didn’t disclosed his ownership.
“The statement about failing to publicly disclose my ownership interest is materially and recklessly false,” Dziedzic said.
Democrats corrected the release this week, removing the incorrectly named partner but maintaining that “at no time were taxpayers publicly informed that Mr. Dziedzic held an interest in the LLC that sold the property.”
John Moise, Southington Democratic Town Committee treasurer, said the mistake was inadvertent and that the release was the collaboration of a number of people.
Moise said that there was no notification from Republicans at the meeting in 2020 that Dziedzic was an owner of the property.
Minutes of that March 9, 2020 show that Chris Poulos, a former Democratic councilor, said that the property was co-owned by a sitting councilor but didn’t name Dziedzic, who wasn’t present for the meeting. Poulos said Dziedzic was transparent and had recused himself from discussions concerning the property but that he still objected to the public perception of the deal and voted against it.
Chaplinsky said the release was part of a negative campaign strategy on the part of Democrats.
“The community wants to hear from the elected officials, what they’ve done, what they plan to do. They want to hear their perspectives on key topics and how they’re going to help the residents of Southington,” he said. “The residents don't want to hear inflammatory rhetoric, accusations and, especially, false statements.”Land swap with Central Baptist Church
Town leaders weren’t able to get agreement for a land swap that would have allowed the town to realign the Spring Street, West Street and West Pines Drive intersection.
A state study identified the West Pines Drive and West Street and Spring Street area as a pinch point due to its unusual configuration.
In exchange for giving up land on the corner of West Street and Spring Street, Central Baptist Church would have received three acres of town-owned land from Western Little League. The extra land at the corner would have allowed the town to rebuild Spring Street further north, aligning it with West Pines Drive.
A state grant would have funded the construction as well as the reconstruction of the church’s soccer field and playground that would have been demolished by the road alignment.
The Board of Park Commissioners opposed the plan, saying once town park land was relinquished there was no way to get it back. The town’s economic development coordinator, Lou Perillo said there was a tight deadline for the state grant and that the deal couldn’t be arranged in time.Land swap a benefit?
Democrats characterized the plan as a way to reward Jim Townsley, Central Baptist Church pastor and a Republican who ran for state representative.
Pocock said the misaligned road was a state Department of Transportation issue and that if state officials felt it was a danger, land could be taken by eminent domain.
“I’m having a hard time understanding why they’re dedicating (state grant) funds that could go to benefit town taxpayers directly to fix a state issue,” Pocock said. “And it just happens to be a close friend of the current chair of the council.”
Victoria Triano, a Republican and council chairwoman, isn’t running for reelection. She disagreed with Pocock’s characterization of the land swap and the idea that Townsley would gain from it.
“Who benefits from it? Only the folks who drive Spring Street every day,” she said. “This will help the flow of traffic for our citizens in that whole area… The residents are affected negatively and therefore it warrants our consideration.”
Chaplinsky also said he didn’t see the gain for the church to have a soccer field and a playground relocated.
“I don’t see that as rewarding,” he said. “It’s petty political misinformation in an effort to try to make the Democrats look good.”
DePaolo said a rebuilt playground and soccer field would be valuable to the church. The land swap was part of a pattern, she said, of deals for Republicans and their supporters.
“The fact that the park board said no on that, that just confirms our thinking on it,” she said.
Dziedzic said the criticisms from Democrats were politically motivated.
“I think as we get closer to the election, this press release shows a lack of an election strategy based on results and achievements and more of a negative campaign messaging,” he said. “I don’t think this is what the voters of Southington value.”