NORWALK, Conn. – Two South Norwalk property owners are leading the charge to create a quasi-governmental body that would tax SoNo commercial property owners in exchange for improving the business climate in the “teetering” area.
Kim Morque and Tom Rich made a “fast” presentation to the Common Council Ordinance Committee Tuesday night to give an introductory overview of the proposed SoNo Special Services District, which would follow the model of 1,500 other such districts across the country, in advance of making a formal application next month. They faced questions that ranged from the nature of the tax that would fund the services the district would provide to the effect it would have on people who live in the neighborhood.
“We don’t need more taxes… A majority of people that live in that area cannot afford to do anything that’s in that area. Some have been property owners for a long time. They couldn’t afford where they are living if they came on it now,” said Councilwoman Sharon Stewart (D-At Large), who said she lives in SoNo Gardens.
Morque, of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners LLC, said the area encompassed would be from Martin Luther King Drive to North Water Street, and would include the Washington Street commercial area. That is 100 properties with a total assessed value of $100 million, he said.
Those property owners would have to vote for the special services district, said Rich, the developer behind 99 Washington St.
“There is no question in my mind – I have a lot of experience with this – that this is the way to go to save that historic district,” he said. “Because right now it’s teetering. It has a lot of vacancies. We need to drive Norwalk forward in all of its neighborhoods. Hopefully it’s all going to flow. We lift everything and it will flow.”
Morque, chairman of the Downtown Special Services District in Bridgeport, said the district would be designed to supplement city services and enhance the commercial district. It would create an independent board of trustees or commissioners elected by property owners, with a budget and a set of priorities that would include safety and marketing.
There are nine such districts in Connecticut, he said.
“In most cases they focus on enhancements, very gritty stuff like making sure that the sidewalks are kept neat, that the streets are plowed, that the banners are up and there’s an attractive environment, then also market special events, those sorts of things,” he said.
A majority of property owners would have to approve the proposal, and that would have to represent 51 percent of the assessed value of the area, he said.
He said they had spent a year designing the district and creating a groundswell of support. Tilly Hatcher, also of Spinnaker, said 44 percent of the property owners are on board. That represents 60 percent of the assessed value and “We haven’t reached 2/3 of them.”
Councilman Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) wanted to know how the voting would be done, for purposes of fairness.
Morque said, “One property, one vote.” Hatcher clarified that to say everyone would vote once for the creation of the district, but there would be two counts: one by assessed value, the second by individual property owner.
The tax increase – just for commercial property owners, not owners of residential property – would be small, they said.
“I would consider it a minuscule increase in the amount of the individual tax bill when you take into account what they would be getting in return,” Rich said. “The collective can do so much more for the area than any one taxpayer could ever do on their own, and what happens at the end of the day is that all the properties benefit, including the residential property, really benefit from a safer, cleaner environment. This has been proven and tested.”
Stewart wasn’t buying it. She has lived in SoNo all of her life, she said, and seen many people leave to go to Danbury or Bridgeport or somewhere else where it is cheaper. If the assessed value of the commercial properties goes up the residential values will go up as well, increasing the taxes for people who are already stressed and don’t benefit from the amenities.
“Is it going to be so the people in the community can afford to live there? Otherwise I don’t see the point,” she said.
Rich took that on.
“I would say that you have to be in any community about economic development,” he said. “How that is meted out fairly amongst everybody in the entire community cannot be the responsibility of the developers in the area. I mean, we’re trying to build the area, stabilize the area, make it functional.”
Councilman David Watts (D-District A) told Stewart that he is from New Haven, where there are three special services districts. He had seen blighted areas be transformed to the benefit of everyone there, he said.
“I think this is another example where Norwalk basically will get caught up to where other cities and towns have been doing. So I can see a benefit,” he said.
He joined others in expressing concerns about the taxes. Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola suggested that Morque and Rich bring examples from other cities when they come back in March to make their formal application.
Bonenfant asked how the taxes would be collected and learned that the plan is to have the tax collector do it.
“You’re just asking for the ability to collect taxes on the side?” he asked.
The answer was an amused yes. The city will collect taxes and send them back to the district.
Councilman Travis Simms (D-District B) indicated initial support as did Councilman Glenn Iannacone (R-At Large).
“Everybody is talking about marketing the city better,” Iannacone said. “I think this will be a positive thing for that because if we don’t have those buildings occupied and they don’t pay taxes then what’s going to improve the city?”
Councilman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said that, at present, it’s impossible to get the shop owners together to create a unified advertising plan or holiday hours.
“If this increases the tax base in this small area then it helps offset tax increases all across the board in other parts of the community. It’s a game of balance,” he said.
“We can’t stay static,” Rich said.
“A lot of the merchants down there understand that the merchants association model didn’t work. There’s no budget,” Morque said. “So having this money funneled into a budget which would be administered by the board of directors is really a guaranteed way for the district to really do the things they want to do.”
Services would include planting, marketing and a series of special events, in addition to enhanced security, he said.
“We’re trying to enliven the area and protect it because it needs to be protected,” he said. “It’s one of southern Connecticut’s jewels. It’s a historic district, which is a very important thing.”
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