Thursday, August 27, 2009

Park Road "Gift"?

The need for more open space in Waterbury has been a concern of mine for many years. In the past two weeks, there has been a lot of news concerning the 134 acres of forest owned by developer Norman Drubner on Park Road. It’s a beautiful stretch of land, one of the most park-like roads in the city, and one of the most endangered open spaces in Waterbury.

Drubner had planned on building 431 condominiums on the property, which provoked a public outcry from residents who feel that the city has more than enough high-density housing and not enough open space. The issue of open space in Waterbury has been a hot topic for many years: sometime around 2005, when the city was considering selling a portion of the East Mountain Golf Course for condo development, Mayor Jarjura was quoted as saying that Waterbury has enough open space, including cemeteries in his count.

Jarjura, a real estate developer, has now offered to have the city purchase Drubner’s land for $1.75 million. The property is assessed at less than $40,000. The difference between those two values has raised some instant red flags for a lot of people. Either the city has offered to pay far too much for the property, or Drubner has not been paying anywhere near enough taxes for it.

There also seems to be some confusion regarding the future of the property: Drubner was quoted in the paper on August 20 as stating that “this property is going to be preserved.” Preserving land usually means that policies, laws or zoning changes are enacted to guarantee that the land will never be developed as anything other than open space. The same article notes that Drubner envisions the land being converted for baseball fields and hiking trails, which would be a fantastic use of the property. Unfortunately, Drubner has yet to announce that this would be a condition of the sale.

More unfortunately, in the August 19 article announcing the deal, Mayor Jarjura was quoted saying “I don’t want to call it open space… I would like it to be undisturbed property. If for whatever reason the city finds itself in trouble, this would be an asset the city could sell, develop or whatever.”

It sounds an awful lot like Jarjura has no intention of using the space as Drubner now envisions, with baseball fields and hiking trails. Instead, it sounds like Jarjura intends to use the property exactly as Drubner has previously intended for himself: a multi-family development cash cow.

Further in the August 19 article, Jarjura says that he would like to see Drubner and “even himself” (in the reporter’s words) “concentrate on redeveloping the housing stock in the city’s inner core rather than bulldozing virgin sites like the Drubner property.” The hypocrisy of this makes me laugh. While I absolutely agree with the sentiment, I have never seen any evidence of Jarjura doing anything except the exact opposite. During his tenure as Mayor, Jarjura and his business partners have bulldozed virgin sites in the East End and just over the town line in Middlebury to construct new building developments. I have never once heard of them rehabbing existing buildings.

While the newspaper article printed yesterday (Wednesday August 26) suggests that the purchase of the land would end the fight to prevent unwelcome developments on the property, it also notes that the residents opposed to the development still want the area rezoned from multi-family to single-family. The reality, as described by Jarjura, is that the city’s purchase of the land will not prevent the property from being converted into condominiums or any other high-density housing. It sounds more like the city will wait until the furor dies down, then sell it to a condo developer.

The issue of whether or not the transaction constitutes a gift hinges on the appraised value of the property. Drubner, quite naturally, wants the land appraised at the maximum value he believes he would gain from developing it for multi-family housing, which would be two or three times the amount of money he proposes selling it for. The difference is what he calls his “gift”, which would perhaps be tax deductible. But, again, if that’s the true value of the property, shouldn’t he have been paying taxes for that value?

I question the ethics of waiting until after the sale to change the zoning on the property. There is clear pressure from the community to change the zoning now. The only reason for waiting is to maximize Drubner’s tax deduction. I assume that is not illegal, but it certainly does not seem ethical.

In times past, the people who donated land to the city for parks also donated endowment funds for the maintenance of the property, and in some cases also paid for the conversion of the land into public parks—Fulton Park is an excellent example of this. Why can’t that happen now?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What would have happened to the land before Jarjura stepped in? It seems the zone change was pretty popular with the Planning Commission. What do you suppose would happen to the land if it were rezoned and the city didn't buy it? Probably nothing, since developers only want it for condos. Worst case scenario: after the zone change, they build a community of low-density single-family homes. This is even highly unlikely given the collapse in housing, the city's notoriously high taxes, and the already available housing stock.

Drubner made a poor investment decision and this is just a sham to bail him out.