This has been a difficult issue for me, since I am very much in favor of open space and I love driving through Park Road, with its gorgeous woodlands. But there are some things about the proposal that bother me.
I had trouble with the proposal two years ago. See my blog posts from August 27, 2009 and September 2, 2009 for my earlier concerns.
One of my concerns, the guarantee that the property would be preserved as open space, has been addressed. But there are other concerns, or maybe questions.
The latest development in the story, the news that Norman Drubner is no longer offering the property for sale, has yet to bring a conclusion to the tale.
Is it possible for Drubner to withdraw his offer without penalty? The city has invested time and staff power to pursuing funding for the purchase. Was this done with any written contract or guarantee between the city and Drubner? Surely Mayor Jarjura, himself a prosperous real estate developer, must have formalized the arrangement with a written contract between the city and Drubner before directing his staff to spend their resources on the project.
When I watched the promotional video about purchasing the Western Woods, there was one thing in particular that stuck out in my mind: Norman Drubner stating that he would like to see the land preserved as open space. Norman Drubner owns the land. If he really wants it preserved as open space (which apparently he does not, since he's now saying he will sell to a condo developer), he can make that happen without my tax dollars. Why do we have to pay him $1.75 million to do something he wants to do? Whatever happened to philanthropy?
The only philanthropist in this scenario is the City of Waterbury, which has not been charging Drubner taxes on the full value of the property. From what I can tell, he's been paying only a couple of thousand or less in annual property taxes for the land. The city assessor's online database indicates that there are only 114 acres of land (not 134) -- with a total appraised value of $31,100.
This does not sit well with me. The people pushing the loudest for the city to give him $1.75 million for the land insist that the current appraised value of the property is between $2.3 million and $4.2 million. So why does the city have it appraised at $31,100? I feel swindled. Either Drubner hasn't been paying enough taxes, or his asking price for the land is grossly inflated. No matter which way I look at it, Drubner is profiting at the expense of the Waterbury taxpayers.
I also feel railroaded. Two years after the topic was first raised, and one year after the grant was awarded, the Board of Aldermen were told they needed to approve bonding for the project immediately or risk losing the grant. They were told to hurry up and push it through during campaign season, adding to the pressure. Why the last-minute rush during campaign time? Why wasn't it presented to the Board of Aldermen sooner?
Now we find out that Drubner doesn't like the politics involved and is backing out of the deal. Which in turn has become a political issue with Drubner accusing the entire Board of Aldermen, which voted unanimously to go to referendum, of making their decision in order to undermine Mayor Jarjura's re-election campaign. This accusation doesn't hold a lot of weight for me, since the two Republican aldermen also voted for the referendum.
Bonding to acquire open space is a new venture for the city, something it has never done before. It should not be done as a last-minute decision made in reaction to pressure from the property owner. It should be done as part of a long-range plan to preserve open space in a logical manner throughout the city. There are numerous other parcels of open space that are available for purchase, including some that have been sitting unsold for years. What about Holyland? The asking price is $750,000. Can the open space grant be used to purchase that instead?
Personally, I don't see what's wrong with a referendum. We had one for bonding on City Hall. It failed in referendum but still happened. For the past ten years, Waterbury has been heavily dependent on bonding to cover its debts and expenses, and that makes me nervous.
Waterbury is broke. Mayor Jarjura declared earlier this year that we can't afford to bond any more money. Now he wants to bond money for the Western Woods, and money for blight. We just bonded $30 million for general operating expenses. If we have to borrow money, with interest, to cover our general operating expenses, how can we possibly afford to borrow money for anything else?