The recent article on NoN about the Norwalk Ethics Committee has been very instructive. I learned that a person making an ethics complaint is then prohibited from discussing said claim in public. I was about to make an ethics complaint against the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency (RDA) for deliberately misleading the Common Council, RDA Commissioners, Ordinance Committee, Planning Committee and the Planning Commission. I was also going to make a similar complaint to the American Planning Association (APA).
Instead I think it wiser to take this public and highlight the abuses of power recently witnessed in the passing of the Wall Street West Avenue Neighborhood Plan.
The Harriman report was used as the primary foundation for RDA’s claim to the “power broker” position in the Wall-West Plan area. Proof of blight or deterioration for over 20 percent of all properties in the Plan area is needed to meet state statutes. Harriman claimed that over 50 percent of the properties in the Plan area meet the definition of deteriorated. However, the Harriman report like its predecessor, the RPA report, is inaccurate, unprofessional, and misleading.
The Harriman report failed to consider the Norwalk Assessor’s recent revaluation data. The Assessor’s 2013 values vs. their 2018 values for the Plan area showed a marked increase in value for virtually every property in the Plan area. A property that is deteriorated would have experienced deterioration (lower value) from its prior state, clearly not the case here. In addition, Harriman did not consider the Norwalk Blight Officer’s findings that the Plan area has only three blighted properties – two were POKO.
Harriman claimed that all buildings with a 30 percent depreciation are “undesirable” and therefore deteriorated sufficiently to meet the State statute for Blight and Deterioration. However, Harriman could not cite any professional resource supporting the 30 percent threshold. Nor did they consider the impact of being a historic district.
From FOIA we now know that Harriman had been provided the IAAO white paper aptly titled “A Model for Quantitatively Defining Urban Blight by Using Assessment Data” that showed the threshold for blight and deterioration using assessor’s depreciation is 60 percent for the “average” building in a blighted area. Norwalk Assessor’s data has less than one (1) percent of the buildings in the Plan area meeting the 60 percent threshold. Other professional resources support this 60 percent threshold as well.
The Harriman report was conducted by unqualified people, a clear violation of the standards set forth in APA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.
The APA Ethics department stated that valuation related opinions or claims should be supported/conducted by valuation professionals such as Assessors and/or Real Estate Appraisers. This was not done. True Harriman did use the Assessor’s data, but they did not engage the Assessor to make the determination of blight or deterioration as confirmed by my conversations with the Assessor. Instead the data was cherry picked and analyzed by unqualified people.
A professional analysis would have, at minimum, included a review of the historic rental rates and occupancy rates in the Plan area vs. a larger control area. Harriman did not do this, we did. Using a control area of all of Norwalk we found the Plan area performed on par or was superior to the larger Norwalk market.
I attended most of the meetings for the commissions noted above and listened as the decision makers asked RDA Staff direct questions yet be provided with misleading information. Key examples include:
Population – RDA claims sparse population with stagnant growth. But the data was from 2014, pre-Waypointe. I’m sure the addition of those 700-odd units would change the findings today.
Income – Same as population, RDA used old data, pre-Waypointe claiming stagnant income growth. 2017 data shows that in census tract 437, the plan area, median household incomes have risen 45 percent in the past twelve years. Most of this growth from 2015 onward.
Harriman Report is supportable – RDA stated both RDA legal and City Corporation Council deemed Harriman’s report as acceptable. Yet neither are qualified to make that determination, since neither are valuation experts. It’s like turning to your neighbor and asking if the Harriman report was acceptable.
City leaders need to take another hard look at this Plan as they have ceded control to RDA for the Plan area based on inaccurate, unprofessional and misleading information. More important, leadership should look at the process which allowed RDA to take such advantage of the taxpayers.
Michael McGuire MAI, CCIM