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Opinion: Loose use of term ‘blight’ is wrong and will no longer be tolerated

This is an open letter sent  by Attorney Candace Fay to the Common Council Ordinance Committee on behalf of real estate broker Jason Milligan. The Committee is holding a public hearing on the Real Estate Tax Agreement for the Wall Street-West Avenue Neighborhood plan, formerly called the “Innovation District,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday (today) in City Hall room A300

As set forth below, we urge you not to vote on the Real Estate Tax Agreement for the Wall Street-West Avenue Neighborhood plan at this time and to require further substantiation from the Common Council.

Section 99-2 sets forth the objective of the Ordinance and specifically sets forth in subsection (b) to “improve the Plan Area’s physical condition, which is recognized by the City of Norwalk as blighted and substandard.”  Section 99-4 sets forth the definitions of the Ordinance.  Section §99-4 (m) defines the “Plan Area” as “The Wall Street – West Avenue Neighborhood Plan Area, as set forth in the Plan Area map approved by the Common Council.”  As of today’s date, there has been no determination by the City of Norwalk of blight.  Further, there is no “Plan Area” map that has been approved by the Common Council. 

Section 99-6(f) sets forth the eligibility criteria for the proposed Ordinance.  It states that the “proposed real estate investment must be consistent with the provisions of Connecticut General Statutes Sections 12-65b and 12-65h, the City of Norwalk Plan of Conservation and Development, and the Wall Street – West Avenue Neighborhood Plan, as each of the same may be amended from time to time.”  Here, you are being asked to either rely on an expired Plan of Conservation and Development from 2008 or a proposed draft of a plan that has not yet been adopted, and a non-existent, yet to be established Wall Street – West Avenue Neighborhood Plan.

Accordingly, your Committee is approving what appears to be an extremely hypothetical tax agreement with no objective other than to satisfy the member of Common Council who have requested such tax agreement.  It certainly does not benefit the tax payers of the City of Norwalk to dole out, or plan to dole out, tax incentives to a district that does not exist.

We have serious concerns about the validity of the findings of the Wall Street – West Avenue Neighborhood Plan as amended on February 6, 2019.  It is incredibly unusual to designate a vibrant area like Wall Street where property owners are engaged and actively and cooperatively making improvements to their own property, as a depreciated area.  Blight findings must be supported by tangible proof that can be scrutinized in a meaningful way.  Blight findings require facts and the most recent report simply does not meet this standard.  Notably, the study was “updated” by a consulting firm, other than the original consulting firm, and in a desperate attempt to obtain a “blight” designation, it relies solely on the depreciation of the area noting that this depreciation is “sufficient to establish the conditions of a deteriorating area.”  See  Wall Street – West Avenue Neighborhood Plan, Appendix A.  This is clearly not within the confines of the law which allows a finding of a deteriorated area when at least twenty per cent of the buildings contain “inadequate public utilities or community facilities that contribute to unsatisfactory living conditions or economic decline.”  Conn. Gen. Stat. §8-125(7)(L).  Depreciation of real property is a concept mainly utilized for tax purposes and not to determine economic decline for purposes of establishing blight.  After all, the City of Norwalk’s own tax assessor records reveal an overall increase in property values between 2013 and 2018.  Thus, there is no economic decline and the Common Council and Redevelopment Agency is unable to make the findings that are required by law.

Historically, the City of Norwalk has loosely and inappropriately utilized the term “blight” to accomplish its ever-evolving objectives; it is wrong and it will no longer be tolerated.  Notably, the definition of blight includes the role of the community, which has been entirely ignored in this current iteration of the of the Wall Street – West Avenue Neighborhood Plan. These active, engaged and invested property owners who have noted their objection and appeared for public comment and have been ignored.  Here, you have simultaneous redevelopment of the entire neighborhood.  There is no rational explanation to disrupt the significant benefits that the City of Norwalk will receive from these improvements that are currently occurring.

The Common Council has asked that you to create an ordinance that it may use in an area that may be designated.  As set forth above, this ordinance is not ripe to go to a vote to your Committee until such an area has actually been defined by the Common Council.

We believe that it is unlikely that the Common Council will actually get to designate this area as blighted and issue a new redevelopment plan for Wall Street.  Thus, we urge you to delay your consideration of the Ordinance until and unless such an area is actually designated by the Common Council.

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