Thursday, July 26, 2018

Chairman's View: Somebody Moved our Cheese, column for July 26, 2018

If you are one of 26 million people who read the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” you know we are at an inflection point here in New Canaan, a moment where we either wring our hands over the good old days or we take stock of the situation and address the change head-on. We find new cheese. New Canaan will continue to be known for great schools, a good commute, green spaces and parks, top cultural attractions and low taxes. But, some things will change:
-      Politics. In November we will have a new Governor. No matter which of the seven, it will be better. Connecticut needs and will get a new paradigm, and new ideas. New jobs will follow. New leadership inevitably brings with it a new optimism and energy. Connecticut and New Canaan will get a November lift as Hartford starts a new chapter.
-      For Sale Signs. Many of us have had a For Sale sign out for too long. Now at 2004 prices, some are waiting for the market to return. I believe the market will move sideways for the next few years. Town Hall must budget for that. If you can afford to stay, stay. New Canaan is a great option while we wait for the rebound. New Canaan prices are excellent when compared to Westchester and the City. The pendulum is swinging our way. 
-      Revaluation. In November the assessor resets the value of every house in New Canaan at a (more) correct value and new taxes are set. The value of many houses changed considerably since 2013 and this recalibration is about being fair to all. The reset will inevitably help move some unsold inventory. 
-      Debt. We have the highest debt of any town in this area (although our pension funds are 100% funded).  This debt was responsibly acquired to fund necessary long term asset improvements such as schools, treatment plants, town buildings, but it is still debt. Fortunately, our Boards of Finance and Selectmen are now hyper-conscious of that fact. Expect a new debt roadmap and capital plan this November outlining how we deliver top quality services and schools within our means. Expect a move toward 0% growth like Westport, Darien and Greenwich are doing.
-      Senior & Affordable Housing. Our lower-cost housing options were redeveloped during the building boom of the last 30 years. Ranches became mansions. Few condos were built to replace them, and those that were are very expensive. Now, the market responds with large, dense alternatives that scare us that the character of the town might be at stake. (The Preservation Alliance is a key piece fighting for our character but we need a strong P&Z. They put 100 restrictions on the Merritt Village. Good. They rejected the Roger Sherman redevelopment plan outright. Good. Let’s put our faith in P&Z. Give the Housing Authority a fair hearing and remember, “Don’t let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good.” (Voltaire

Chairman’s View: Expect a High-Density Development on Pine Street, column for July 12, 2018

Chairman’s View: Expect a high-density development on Pine Street

By John Engel
Town Council Chairman
The Beval Saddlery building at 50 Pine Street and two adjacent brick buildings may have been sold to a developer.
My purpose is not to report on a rumor. But, if it has not sold then it will likely sell in the not-too-distant future. Don’t be surprised. It is logical to expect the eventual buyers to propose another high-density development in this location. 
There will be hand-wringing about the changing character of our town. What is the best use for Pine Street? Some say New Canaan’s “Magic Circle” loses its magic every time it is diluted by the addition of storefronts on Pine, Grove, Cross and Vitti streets. Others say we must evolve, and new, dense development is consistent with the POCD (Plan of Conservation and Development) and adds to the tax base in a way that makes New Canaan a more complete shopping and dining destination.
Both are correct. I would suggest that we talk about what healthy change looks like in our downtown instead of simply opposing whatever represents change. It is good to remember that we are unlikely to solve any perceived current issues (not enough variety in housing stock, not enough senior-friendly housing, too many retail vacancies, etc.) unless we are willing to consider changing what we currently permit.
Two residents, each in town for at least three generations, stopped me last week with diametrically opposed opinions on whether the Merritt Village project is good for New Canaan. 110 condominiums in 4 buildings on 3.5 acres. One of them cited its consistency with our POCD’s intention to encourage senior-friendly housing within walking distance of train and town.  The other said it was too dense, too ugly, and not in keeping with the character of our town.
The three Pine Street lots represent nearly two acres in the BUS-A zone. Our assessor appraises them for nearly $12 million, currently $140,576 in property taxes. Therefore, there is a good chance that we will see a proposal for development that spans all three lots, is built to the height limit of 40 feet, possibly with parking underneath to maximize building size and make use of the slope. While this should clearly raise the taxable value of the property, do we want more dense housing, possibly senior or workforce housing, maybe mixed-use with retail on the bottom at that location? 
One difference: we won’t see the 8-30g threat as a retaliatory tactic by developers who don’t get their way with Planning and Zoning. New Canaan has been working on a multi-phase plan that already exempts us from the 8-30g threat for the next three years and will hopefully lead to up to eight additional years.
50, 58 and 70 Pine have style. They do not loom. They are set back from the road with green space in front. The parking is hidden. The old bricks are warm with character. 
Almost anything new is better than a vacant building, but, please, let’s actively try to encourage the most benefit for the Town as a whole from these unique buildings.

Chairman’s View: Seeking More Transparency from School Leaders, column for June 6, 2018

Chairman’s View: Seeking more transparency from school leaders

When the Town Council met earlier this year to review the upcoming Board of Education budget for 2018-19, we paid great respect to the challenge they face in providing excellence within 2% guidance alongside rising health care and labor costs. We wanted to approve the administration’s bold experiment to propose an ‘Alternative High School’ within the former Outback building, but it felt premature and the budget did not contain the detailed financial information we needed about a proposed Alternative High School for it to gain approval.
School leaders urged parents to attend the Town Council meetings to support the budget as presented, threatening that extra-curricular activities such as Model UN and favorite classes would be affected if any cuts in the budget were implemented.
Given the reductions in the budget request, it came as a surprise to learn, through the Board of Education (BOE) meeting last week, that the administration was moving ahead with their original plans for an Alternative High School. 
Seeking transparency, finding surprise
I thought we agreed to reduce headcount through attrition. I thought we agreed to start the conversation together about how we could work together for long-term savings. We see job postings for Alternative High School openings are online. We thought we were shedding real estate, and then we read in the newspaper that BOE is discussing real estate for the Alternative High School program in private, because publicity of that could adversely affect the price. The price of what? Where is the transparency in this process? Where is the spirit of cooperation?
Connecticut statutes empower only the BOE to decide how their budget gets appropriated once approved by municipality funding bodies. The Board of Education members have delegated most of that responsibility, which is entrusted to them by their Bylaws, the New Canaan Charter and the state statutes, to the school administration, and those meetings are not open to parents, the press or Town government. 
New Canaan residents and at least a few members of the Town Council are left wondering where did the money for these programs come from.  
At a time of uncertainty with regards to property taxes and taxable deductions, we need to ensure that every dollar we collect is warranted. The approved education budget was not supposed to negatively impact the current special education program. We thought the budget would allow the school administration to continue current programing without any cuts.  
If you really need an Alternative High School please have these conversations in the open. Invite the public and the Town Council in. Provide us some of the supporting documentation of its mission, approach, financial sustainability and success measures. 
The BOE needs to follow its own bylaws with transparency, and when seeking financial support look to quantify the financial impacts. We need to implement prudent, fiscally conservative changes with success measures that are financially responsive to the needs of our community.

Chairman’s View: Urging School Board to Resolve Security Camera Issue, column for May 24, 2018

Chairman’s View: Urging school board to resolve security camera issue

I wrote this column in February and pulled it before publication, because I thought we were making progress. Instead I wrote to the superintendent of schools on Feb. 27. I received no reply. 
For the last several years the New Canaan Police had viewing access to the interior and exterior cameras of all New Canaan Public Schools from their dispatch center. They could select a specific camera if there was an incident. About a year ago police access to the interior cameras was cut off. The police chief was told that the superintendent / Board of Education was concerned about student privacy and cited FERPA laws.
Subsequently the superintendent sent the police a very restrictive memorandum of understanding (MOU), which the chief would not sign. When asked, the chief has said, “These restrictions were not workable especially in an emergency situation. Logging into the system during an emergency is not realistic.”
The police chief revised the MOU months ago to be workable from a student safety perspective. Police access to all school cameras is the next step (albeit small) to ensure student safety. The issue remains unresolved.
One Town Council member defended the right of the superintendent to make that decision saying, “The BOE has made a policy decision that’s entirely within their authority.” How do we know? The BOE does not discuss these important policy changes at their public meetings. 
The main argument is that courts have ruled that security video footage of a public school should remain classified as an educational record under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). It seems crazy to suggest that a live-feed to the police is the same as making security camera footage available to the public. We don’t need to know the details of your security plan, but we expect our police to be involved and consulted on all matters of security. After all, we do not have two police forces — a private one for schools and one for the rest of us. 
We expect police to be involved with drug-sniffing dogs and underage drinking, too — any suspected crime where the police think they have a problem. Chris Hussey raised this question of unannounced police access at a recent Board of Education meeting and learned “they [police] had to give the school notification.” 
The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that police are permitted to use dogs to sniff out contraband during unannounced, random searches. While the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure the Court ruled that students do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in schools. These issues are related. Please do not keep the police at arms length.
As much as the schools prefer to handle things themselves within their walled garden, school security is not their decision alone. Work with the chief of police; solve this impasse.

Chairman’s View: Support a Ban on House ‘For Sale’ Signs on MAY 8, 2018

Chairman’s View: Support a ban on house ‘for sale’ signs

The overwhelming majority of New Canaan citizens want to eliminate real estate signs. In a recent poll at the Advertiser Coffee 95% support a ban. They are a blight on our town. The signs would be gone except for the fact that every year a few Realtors object because it is a cheap form of advertising. 
Remember, we are residents first and Realtors second. We want our town to look beautiful, not like a town-wide tag sale. These signs cheapen New Canaan. If we act like our real estate is at a premium then maybe people will begin to regard it that way.
Greenwich and Tokeneke are our high-end sisters that prove the ban works. Greenwich P&Z regulations, section 6-163 (b) prohibits signs that “Direct attention to a business, product, service or other commercial activity, offered or existing elsewhere than on the premises where such sign is displayed.” New Canaan banned commercial signs with the exception of real estate. Nancy Healy, president of the Greenwich Board of Realtors when they enacted their sign ban said, “If New Canaan is going to make this step they’ll find out … it’s a good thing. It took the clutter off our streets. We are used to it now.”
Why now? What has changed? We have more houses on the market than ever before. In March 2008 New Canaan had 155 houses on the market. Ten years later we have 266 houses on the market, up 42%. That’s not the worst of it. The busiest time of the year for signs is coming up. Expect 358 for sale signs this June. That’s over 5% of the whole town. Nationally, houses sell on average in three weeks. In New Canaan some signs stay up for years, a semi-permanent scar. Signs are harming our ability to sell some streets in this town. Buyers now say, “What’s wrong with this street, why is everything on it for sale?”
The New Canaan Board of Realtors is considering the question. Board President Janis Hennessy absolutely supports the ban. Former presidents Joe Scozzafava and Becky Walsh agree we should take down the signs. Past President Arlene Bubbico disagrees, citing the national statistic that 7% of purchases come from signs. However, those statistics reveal 99% of Millennials and 89% of Boomers search online.
The first selectman supports the ban. We Town government leaders want the support of the Board of Realtors before either taking it to Planning and Zoning for a text change or to the Town Council for an ordinance. 
If you want to take back your town and enhance our real estate values then join me in supporting the ban. Call a Realtor and tell them it’s OK to take down the signs.

— John Engel is chairman of the New Canaan Town Council.

Chairman's View: Yes to GreenLink; No to Sharp Elbows - New Canaan Advertiser April 26, 2018

Chairman’s View: Yes to GreenLink; no to ‘sharp elbows’


“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” –John Muir (1912)
Fifty New Canaan residents gathered yesterday (Sunday) to open a GreenLink trail more than 50 years in the making. Trace it to Susan Bliss’s gift of the 40-acre Nature Center (1960), Land Trust founder Jack Gunther (1967), gifts by the Betts (1974), Hupper (1974) and Fischer (1977) families, Richard Bergman’s GreenLinks vision (1990), Judy Neville’s purchase of 36.2-acre Irwin Park (2004), Chris Schipper’s debut (2012), Tiger Mann’s sidewalks, bridges by Eagle Scout Max Marsh and Anthony Sillo, the New Canaan Community Foundation and the Nature Center.
I recently asked a family why they moved here. It wasn’t excellent schools and low taxes. She said our neighbors are towns of “sharp elbows,” and New Canaan has a reputation as a nicer place to raise a family. Be proud of that distinction. We cannot put a price on it. It took an uninterrupted thread of 50-plus years, neighbor support and the last 100-foot stretch of trail.
Let’s talk sharp elbows: The First District Water Department, answering to the ratepayers of Norwalk, is threatening to demolish the 225-year-old Grupe-Nichols-Brown house in New Canaan on May 13 to avoid paying property taxes to New Canaan. General Manager Dominick DiGangi was quoted saying, “I have to protect my investment. I have ratepayers, I have taxpayers. That is who I answer to.” Demolition to protect an investment? The First District Water Company does not treat New Canaan equally to its Norwalk constituents. We pay higher rates on hydrants, on connections and for the water. New Canaan receives less than one cent per 1,000 gallons pulled from the Milne and Grupe reservoirs, while the Water Department charges around $4 per 1,000 gallons.
Consider the difference between our two water companies: Aquarion is the fourth-largest taxpayer in New Canaan, paying $291,000 in property taxes. The First District Water Department holds 168 acres, extracts about 1 billion gallons of our water, mostly for the benefit of Norwalk residents, and pays only $9,000 per year in taxes. This particular 4-acre parcel has been for sale for three years because it is surplus property, not used for any department purposes. Oh, by the way, if they need it, it will be there, undeveloped, under the careful eye of the Land Trust. 
The Board of Finance and Town Council voted unanimously to support purchasing the property, using all means necessary, at the fair market price. The whole town is committed to this initiative, backed with financing from the Land Trust and our 50-plus-year history of conservation.

Chairman's View: Town Council faces buildings, Board of Education (MARCH 21, 2018)

Town Council faces buildings, Board of Education

The Town Council choked over a $1 million “placeholder” in the budget to build a “bird-cage” elevator and improve bathrooms at Waveny House. Why was this request shut down so quickly when $500,000 for the Police Department has met no resistance? There are lessons to be learned. 

First, everything to do with Waveny takes more time. The Council wants to see the design documents, the Request for Proposal, host a public hearing, and collect the opinions from the Recreation Department, Historical Society and the Preservation Alliance before we consider any major change to the building. We won’t authorize budget only to kill the project later. The first public hearing to discuss our buildings is scheduled for April 25 or 26 and we’ve asked that these plans and alternatives be published and circulated immediately. 

Second, the Town Council does not like to put placeholders in the budget that tip our hand to contractors how much to bid. Placeholders killed the Outback and Vine Cottage projects. 
Third, if our real objective is to make every building ADA-compliant then there must be less intrusive and less expensive ways to do it. Waveny has an elevator that accesses every floor. Show us why that less-intrusive upgrade isn’t a better plan.

Half a million dollars to start the (planning) of the Police Station renovation is an easy decision. It is expected that a $5 million to $7 million renovation will solve our Police Department needs while providing a new home for the New Canaan Public Schools administration, saving them $300,000 per year in rent.

This is another opportunity to find cost savings by working together and getting more out of our buildings. I believe an Alternative High School at the Outback will save us money and I hope to see a tighter plan.

The Bliss Laundry House at the Nature Center is another example. It would be a win-win if the Land Trust would move their offices to this building on the Nature Center campus for the benefit of both non-profits.

$90 million education

The $90 million elephant in the room is the Board of Education budget. The Town Council should get out of the habit of making a token cut. Last year we cut $100,000 on the last day without knowing the effect. It’s a broken process that starts with an October guidance letter written without input from the Board of Ed. We are broken because we work one year at a time and the only conversation is televised on Channel 79. 

I believe the Board of Ed leadership has committed to meet with representatives of Finance and Council to work on a long-term plan that will meet expense limitations between 2.0%-2.5% without harming our schools. We all want this.