By Dorothy Mobilia
Former member and chairman, Norwalk Zoning Commission
NORWALK, Conn. – Last week (on May 1 and May 2), two letter writers to The Hour offered arguments against Democratic candidate Harry Rilling’s opposition to the ever-growing number of big box stores in Norwalk. In the process, one writer incorrectly characterized the former police chief’s income and his voting status as a commissioner on the city Zoning Commission. I’d like to set the record straight on those issues before dealing with the concept of big box stores versus small business and mom and pop stores.
Contrary to the rumor that has been around for years, Mr. Rilling receives only one city pension, as confirmed by the city Finance Director, Tom Hamilton. As to the Zoning Commission’s 6-0 vote to approve the Lowe’s application for a Connecticut Avenue site, Mr. Rilling was not one of the voters. He was unable to attend the hearing that preceded the decision, and under the Zoning Commission’s rules he therefore was ineligible to cast a vote.
In published statements, Mr. Rilling has come out strongly in opposition to stores of this size and has explained why they are detrimental to the community. Essentially, not all development is good development.
In his own letter dated April 25, the candidate said, “Big box stores with large floor area, wide selection, discount prices and huge parking lots can be cheap places to shop. Unfortunately, they also generate lots of traffic, pay minimal property taxes, employ workers at rock-bottom wages (often part-time and without benefits), and take the place––quite literally––of mixed-use and other development which would provide housing, better jobs, and business opportunities for Norwalkers.”
Economic studies support him. In a recent study published in The Journal of Urban Economics, for instance, it was found that for every new WalMart––and, remember, Norwalk has two––360 low paying jobs are created at the WalMart while 500 other jobs in the community are lost as a result.
Similarly, big box employees, such as those at WalMart, are paid 10 percent to 15 percent less than other retail employees. Further, research shows that in WalMart communities, wages are significantly reduced for the rest of the retail workers in town.
Then there’s traffic. Personally, I try to avoid shopping on Main Avenue and Connecticut Avenue on weekends as much as possible because of the increasingly heavy traffic. Imagine what it will be like when this Lowe’s, the new CVS on Connecticut Avenue and possibly a BJ’s Wholesale Club open in the next few years?
And the biggest hit will be the loss of higher taxable development that encourages the growth of small businesses, a greater variety of land use, and higher salaries. That in turn means that the pressures will increase on the home property owners to pay for roads, schools, police and fire services and other services that maintain and enhance a community’s quality of life.
Mr. Rilling, if he is nominated and wins the mayoral election, promises to commit himself to aggressively work with department heads and commissions to attract better development for the city and blunt the harm already under way. That’s what we need to expect from our elected leader, instead of the indifference and careless analysis and planning shown by our present administration.