Thursday, May 9, 2019

Chairman's View: New Canaan's Town Meeting (May 9, 2019)

Chairman’s View: New Canaan’s town meeting

We have a special thing going on in New Canaan that no other town has. It’s a conversation by the people, about the town, that penetrates every decision made at Town Hall and more than a few decisions in Hartford. I’m taking about the Advertiser Coffee. Every Friday morning for the last 20 years the last four editors of the New Canaan Advertiser have hosted a community conversation called the Advertiser Coffee. What began as a relatively quiet conversation among 20 townspeople at Garelick & Herbs on Main Street has swelled to more than 60 people representing a great range of interests. Sometimes it gets loud. Democracy is a messy business.
The conversation used to be hyper-local, New Canaan only, parking spaces and cell towers. The conversation has evolved to include a bit more of Hartford, possibly a reflection of the fear that Hartford politics are intruding on our local decision-making, what we hold dear, home-rule, and that there is an increasing threat to the “Great Schools-Low Taxes” paradigm that New Canaan needs to stay competitive. Insights by representatives Tom O’Dea, Lucy Dathan, Will Haskell, Alex Bergstein, Scott Franz, Toni Boucher and Fred Wilms are invaluable, and yet Hartford sausage-making reports are strictly limited to 20 minutes so we can get back to parking, cell towers and the occasional real-estate report.
On any given Friday you will find our first selectman and the Democratic selectman having a spontaneous debate (from opposite ends of the room) about the issues. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) rules prevent those two from ever having a conversation outside the public eye, which makes these conversations in front of us all unrehearsed and so much richer. It usually begins with Kit asking Kevin about something she learned in this week’s press briefings, such as the sale of Waveny land or the police station. She might say, “When was this discussed?” And he might say, “We’re discussing it now.” Let’s applaud them both for being so accessible. Their exchange is a fascinating look at where we differ and where we agree.
Represented every week is a majority of the Town Council, members of the Boards of Finance and Education, department heads such as the chief of police, the fire marshal and public works. Keith Richey, no shrinking violet, defends the latest controversies coming out of the Parking Commission while Lazlo Papp speaks with authority for Planning & Zoning except when he teases us saying “No comment on pending matters.” Tom Butterworth and I generally play nice in front of the room over budget cuts, we prefer to trade editorials in the newspaper during budget season. The conversation often comes around to the projects of our largest taxpayer and developer, Arnold Karp.
Our commissioners are there: the Conservation Commission, the Tourism and Economic Development Commission. Leadership is well represented including the Community Foundation, Land Trust, Board of Realtors, Chamber of Commerce, Grace Farms, the Ram Council, The Glass House, The Nature Center, Summer Theater, Scouting, The Preservation Alliance, our historical society and our library.
Join a slice of Americana, a true town hall meeting where everybody gets to speak and laugh and listen, at the New Canaan Historical Society every Friday from 9-10 a.m.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. The Chairman’s View represents only the views of the chairman and not necessarily any other council member.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Chairman's View: Bike New Canaan (April 22, 2019)

Chairman’s View: Bike New Canaan

It’s Earth Day. I am reminded we really need bike lanes in New Canaan.
We need to begin with a bike lane down South Avenue that connects Waveny Park, the YMCA, our schools and the New Canaan Village.
I wrote about adding bike lanes in my New Year’s resolutions in December when I wrote about eliminating plastic bags. We banned the bags. Now that it’s warm out, thoughts turn to bicycles and beaches.
Yes, beaches. Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson suggested that bike lanes could connect Darien beaches to New Canaan’s parks. While non-residents pay $45 to park a car at the beach, our residents can ride bicycles to Weed Beach and Pear Tree Point for free. Think about it, free beach access.
Former Advertiser Editor Greg Reilly reported last June that the route from New Canaan to the beach is 7.7 miles. Going to the beach from New Canaan is slightly downhill, 30 minutes. The return trip takes 43 minutes.
South Avenue will soon be repaved and restriped. Are we waiting for repaving? Why wait? We should stripe a temporary path now and begin to train drivers and bikers how to share the road.
There are two types of bike lanes. Sharrows are symbols painted in the road indicating that drivers and bicyclists share the travel lane. Existing law already allows for shared use. Sharrows simply reinforce that reality. A 2016 Chicago study concluded Sharrows don’t encourage biking, nor do they improve safety. In contrast, bike lanes are typically four-foot-wide lanes specifically dedicated to cyclists. They exist on busier streets and demarcate bicycle space from motorized vehicle space with a line of white paint. This is what we need on our widest, busiest roads including South Avenue.
My family rented Citibikes in New York City on the first warm day of spring. (The lanes were clearly marked in green paint.) It was the most efficient (fastest and cheapest) way to get around New York City in nice weather. New Canaan should contract with a bike share service, like Citibike in New York and Hubway in Boston. New Rochelle began a bike share program last year with 11 stations. After six months they had 1,400 registered users, had sold 36 annual passes and 67 weekly passes and had logged 5,200 trips over 2,800 rental sessions. Norwalk’s Bike/Walk Commission has selected the same firm, P3GM, to roll out its bike-share program in 2019. Fairfield and Bridgeport may be next. The bike-share vendor hires a local bike shop to maintain the bikes and docking stations. Here, it’s Lou Kozar and New Canaan Bicycle.
Bike lanes. Bike sharing. After we connect Waveny and the train station to Darien’s beaches, we should add bike rental racks at Irwin Park, Kiwanis Park, the Glass House, Grace Farms, the historical society and the library. We must take the first steps to becoming a bike friendly town. This is an inexpensive initiative. It benefits our residents. It’s healthy for the planet and it’s the right thing to do. I’ll be adding this to our Town Council agenda.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. Chairman’s View represents the views of the chairman and not necessarily the views of other council members.

Chairman's View: Spoiler Alert (April 11, 2019)

Chairman’s View: Spoiler alert

Spoiler alert: I really like New Canaan’s prospects.
Here are five observations taken from the revaluation, the Town budget, the State election, and the first quarter real estate sales. There is a happy ending.
1. The uncertainty coming from Hartford is probably worse than anything Hartford will actually do to us. We accept a certain amount of pain is coming and we adjust. But when house-hunters from New York say, “I heard the New Canaan train is going away” or “What’s going on with your schools?” we know the headlines are worse than the reality will ever be.
2. New Canaan government is working leaner and smarter. Our budget went down .43%, the greatest cut in a decade, while improving services. We built new playgrounds, turf fields and gas lines while putting solar on town roofs. Our roads will be new, and our schools will remain No. 1. Town Hall will sell antique buildings and find a way to co-invest in the world-class library our residents want. Progress is being made on parking, senior and affordable housing and improved cell service. It’s a great time to live right here.
3. The Waveny Conservancy, Land Trust, Library and Athletic Foundation are examples of the high-energy volunteer organizations we have in New Canaan restoring treasures like Waveny Pond with donations, paying it forward.
4. New Canaan real estate is stable. First quarter house sales are up 20 percent with average prices in the $1.3 millions, (same as 2012-13 and same as Darien). New Canaan is drawing buyers out of Westchester and New York City. (If we speed up the trains, wow, the landscape shifts more dramatically in our favor.) Why is the market recovering from the bottom-up? Because 75 million Baby Boomers are trying to sell their houses to 66 million GenXers (like me, late 30s to early 50s), and there are just not enough of us. Be patient. There are 83 million Millennials (23 to 38 years old) who are starting to discover that Texas and San Francisco are expensive. They have to live somewhere. Why not here? We are downright cheap.
5. New Canaan’s downtown is healthy with less than a 5 perent vacancy rate. A few years ago vacancies were lower and rents unaffordable. Rents are attractive again. P&Z and the new Tourism & Economic Development Committee are responding to changes in the market, giving us the flexibility New Canaan needs to compete in a changing retail environment. Developers respond with exciting new projects all over town. The Grand List is growing again. Consider the new developments built or planned for downtown: Pine Street Concessions, Oxygen, The Merritt Village, a new Post Office, a new Merrill Lynch, new mixed-use on Forest, Locust, Cross and Vitti streets. Soon look to the corner of South and Elm and for more development on Pine Street to keep the next station to heaven vibrant.
Change is hard. For a town of steady habits that fears change New Canaan is adapting well, improving in so many ways, poised to compete for the next decade and beyond.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. Chairman’s View represents the views of the chairman and not necessarily any other council members.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

First Quarter 2019 Real Estate Market Reports for New Canaan and all 16 Towns of Fairfield County, Connecticut

New Canaan - Closings are up 20% this quarter. Pending sales are down by the same amount. First quarter sales have dramatically increased for the past 3 years. 42 may be the new normal, up from 20 to 34 in years prior. Average price is down to $1.338 million, about where it was in 2012-2013, and  now equal to Darien. Condo sales, 14% of the market, usually consistent, are down 42% from normal levels of 12 sales. Inventory is level with last year, 301 houses and 41 condos.

Riverside - 7 closings versus a range of 13 to 19 in the last 8 years. Average price of $2.1 million is the low end of an 8 year range of $1.8 to $3.6 million. Inventory is level with last year, 89 houses. Riverside is performing consistently with the larger Greenwich market which is also starting late and also down to an average price point of $2.3 million. 

Rowayton - 11 closings in the quarter, same as last year, within an 8 year range showing between 8 and 15 closings. Prices of $1.17 million are up 12% but sit in the middle of an 8 year range of $960,000 to $1.32 million. 

Stamford -120 closings, down from 153 a year ago. Last year was exceptional and 120 is in the middle of an 8 year range of 93 to 153. Average prices ($565,000) are down for the second year in a row and are the lowest they’ve been in 8 years. Condos ($340,000) are at the high end of an 8 year range between $274,000 and $355,000. There was only 1 house sale over $1.5 million and 3 house sales over $1 million while 2 condos closed over $1 million. 

Weston - 27 sales vs. 23 a year ago and the best year of an 8 year range of 17 to 24. The average price is down to $640,000, the fifth straight year of price decline from a high of $1,015,000 in 2014 and a low of $628,000 in 2012. Sales volume is up despite very low inventory of 140 houses. 

Westport - First thought is "wow". 46 sales versus 84 a year ago, a 45% drop. Westport is struggling with the lowest total in 8 years by a substantial margin and the lowest average price they've seen in 8 years, $1,291,000, a number which has dropped for 4 straight years. The absorption rate is up from 10.2 months a year ago to 11.8 months of inventory now. Note, in the categories below $1.2 million the absorption rate has gone down. 

Wilton - is looking good with a 17% increase in sales, 40 versus 34 a year ago and 15 additional sales pending, same as a year ago, despite a modest rise in inventory (10%) to 208 houses. Those 40 houses account for the second best quarter in 8 years (Each of the last 3 years has been above average.) Prices steadily climbed from $794,000 8 years ago to a peak of $944,000 in 2016 before returning to 2012 levels, currently $768,000. Wilton has much inventory and sales in the $500,000 to $700,000 category with 2 sales over $1.5 million in the quarter (same as last year) and 4 sales between $1.2 and $1.5 million (which is double that of last year). 

Cos Cob - 9 sales in the first quarter is the worst start in 5 years, down from 18 and 14 the previous two years. However, Cos Cob is one of the few towns that experienced an increase in the average sale price, up 4% to $1,520,000 which is an 8-year high. Prior to this year the average price ranged between $1,209,000 and $1,489,000. Cos Cob has one of the lowest absorption rates at only 7.4 months of inventory, down 32% since last year. 

Darien - Steady in sales, 42 is up from 40, and the 3rd best in 8 years, but like her sister New Canaan experiencing strength in the lower price categories bringing the average sale price down 8% to $1,335,000. The hope is that Darien has a late selling season like last year but the fear is that the 37% decrease in pending sales (20) is a harbinger of things to come. 

Easton - The 21 sales versus 23 is unremarkable, as is a 10% increase in average sale price ($605,000). What is worth noting is the 26% decrease in inventory to 76, by far the biggest change in inventory levels in Fairfield County. The steady decrease in Easton's absorption rate (-30%) in a year to 7.7 months of inventory is impressive, and we note they have low absorption rates the top of the Easton market, over $1 million. 

Fairfield - The number of sales has steadily risen in Fairfield for 8 years in a row to 142, up 8%. This year we saw a 5% decrease in average price to $724,000, 3% fewer pending sales, and an 8% increase in inventory. Condo sales also rose from 21 to 26 and now represents 18% of sales. 

Greenwich - They say Greenwich will be the first to come out of the slump. Well, not this quarter. With only 39 sales, down 35% from a total of 60 a year ago, we are looking for good news and not finding it. Average price is down 15% to $2.466 million, pending sales are down 34%, inventory levels are up 10%. The reason is simple: there is far less inventory available in Greenwich at every level under $2 million and 7 fewer sales under $1 million. And, despite dramatic increases in inventory (34 houses) at every level above $4 million we had 11 fewer sales over 4 million than a year ago. The good news in Greenwich is that condo sales are steady at 24 while condo inventory has dropped 9% and the average condo closing has risen 27% to over $1.05 million, a new high water mark. 

Norwalk - The number of houses sold is down a little, 5%, but is down two years in a row and is below the 8 year average. Prices went up a very small amount to $578,000, the highest point in 8 years. Condo prices are also at their highest point in 8 years, now $334,000. Norwalk only saw 2 sales over $1.5 million but the $1.0 to $1.5 million band was up from 1 sale to 7 sales, a 600% bump. The ratio between list and sale price is the highest in Fairfield County, 97.7% of asking, peaking in the categories below $500,000. where they sell at 99% of asking. The greatest number of active homes are in the $600,000 to $800,000 level where the absorption rate is 9.4 months of inventory, down from 12.4 months a year ago. 

Old Greenwich - Up 35% in closings from 14 to 19. Prices unchanged at $2.4 million. Inventory unchanged at 73 homes available. Condo prices and inventory also unchanged with a year ago. The 19 closings are a new 8 year high over a previous range of 9 to 16 sales. The average sale price of $2.4 million over the last three years is also significantly better than the previous five years which ranged from $1.5 million to $2.2 million. 8 pending sales tell us that this energy will continue into the second quarter. Old Greenwich is one of the few towns seeing steadily increasing inventory peaks over the last 3 years, enough to stimulate sales but not enough to disrupt pricing confidence. 

Redding - Down 4 sales to 17 and down 15% in price to $455,000, but poised to make up for it immediately with 17 pending sales, up from 10 a year ago. Inventory is down from 95 to 84. Redding has had 4 solid years previously and we expect a rebound. 

Ridgefield - 48 sales each of the last two years, and about average for the last 8 years. Prices are up 5% to $706,000 while inventory is down 5%. The number of listings in each category is consistent, year to year, while the sales came at the top and bottom of the price range. What is interesting is that condo sales which currently make up 45% of the Ridgefield market are down 26% and prices declined 15% while condo inventory Rose 39% 

Fairfield County - At the end of March the supply of active single family homes was almost identical to the supply at the same time last year. Rowayton and Easton had the greatest price increases while New Canaan, Weston and Wilton saw the largest sales increases.
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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Chairman's View: Cap Town Spending for Three Years (Mar. 28, 2019)

Chairman’s View: Cap town spending for three years

Town income is dependent on real estate values and the taxes they generate. Our revenues currently grow at 1% per year.
I propose that we cap spending at 1.50% per year for three years, beginning now. We must limit our spending growth more closely to our revenue growth. The town budget is growing 1.43% while the school budget grew 1.85% ($1.4 million). My proposal means cutting $340,000 from a $91 million Board of Education budget. This is not a criticism of the school budget or their priorities. It is simply the recognition that 2.8% average annual growth we’ve seen for the last 10 years is unsustainable.
The reputation of top-performing schools causes school-age families to move in. The No. 1 reason people move out is affordability. That is particularly true of our empty-nesters and seniors whose taxes developed the school system that we all currently enjoy. It’s the responsibility of the Town Council to make sure we maintain that balance between excellent schools and long-term affordability. We cannot ignore the effects SALT deductibility, revaluation, and pressures from Hartford have had on property values. We must cut spending growth in all budgeted areas to a level New Canaan can sustain.
New Canaan currently plans capital spending of $17 million, $18 million and $18 million in the next three years while retiring only $11.5 million to $12.4 million of debt per year. Those figures don’t meet the needs of our Police Department or library, but they do include a $500,000 fire rescue truck, $210,000 ambulance, $550,000 school planetarium, $6 million Waveny restoration, $200,000 Irwin House restoration, $250,000 Nature Center restoration and $3.2 million in the selectmen’s budget to buy land for new parking lots. We must get serious about re-prioritizing our capital needs within the $13 million cap. Doing so will result in debt service savings of $282,529, $426,047 and $842,239 in the next three years and is necessary if we are to decrease debt service toward the 10% guideline set by the Board of Finance in the fall of 2018. If we don’t limit new capital spending below $13 million, then we will never reach the 10% target.
Two years ago, New Canaan and Darien both claimed mill rates in the 16s. This year, Darien has a mill rate of 16.08 while New Canaan’s will grow from 16.96 to 18.11 and possibly exceed 19 in two years. We need the mill rate to return to levels near that of Darien and Westport, our closest rivals. I am confident that with proper planning we can do this while maintaining school excellence and the current level of services. And, as a Realtor, I am confident that real estate prices will recover and when they do we will be able ease the caps.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. The views expressed in this column are those of the chairman, not necessarily the entire council.

Chairman's View: New Canaan's Fourth Estate (November 15, 2018)

Op-Ed: New Canaan’s Fourth Estate

We live in challenging times for news. The Internet and the information age, professional pundits, fake news and 24-hour news cycles disrupted the old paradigm of trust and integrity in news organizations. Morley Safer of ‘60 Minutes’ said, “So much crap passes as information that not only does the audience sometimes miss the distinction between news and crap, the editors sometimes miss the distinction.”
To be a successful editor you not only have to find the story, you have to get it right. People have to want to read it, and they must trust it. We have been very lucky with the New Canaan Advertiser. As an essential source for all aspects of local news, the Advertiser has thrived under Greg Reilly’s editorial leadership.
For almost 100 years the New Canaan Advertiser was the only source for local news. No longer. To get our attention and break through the clutter of available news sources requires the skills of a great editor. Greg Reilly has lead with trust and integrity throughout his tenure at the Advertiser. 
Greg comes by it honestly. He has been a reporter, editor or publisher since high school. He studied Journalism at Syracuse University and when he saw a need he created New Canaan Matters. He honed his craft running the Stratford Star before returning to run our beloved New Canaan Advertiser with great distinction for the past three and a half years.
Greg has in many ways been the voice of New Canaan. As our editor, he has been our chief storyteller, a steward of our town culture, and a voice of the people –– using his power as editor for checks and balances with Town leaders. He is often the last one in the room late at night when an important public meeting takes place –– asking tough questions and getting the story right before returning to his desk to put the weekly edition to bed.
Greg has never been afraid to take a position, but he has never been a contrarian. His great gift, as evidenced by his hosting the packed Friday morning Advertiser Coffee, has been listening to the people. He has promoted awareness of every important organization in town. He has moderated debates. He has been a pillar of the community. 
Greg Reilly has held himself to the highest standards of journalism, held people to account and at all times he has embodied and celebrated what is best about New Canaan — Community. And we are better because he was here for a time.

Chairman's View: Advertiser, Hersam's Served New Canaan for a Century (Nov. 21, 2018)

Op-Ed: Advertiser, Hersams served New Canaan for a century

‘A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself’
— Arthur Miller
The New Canaan Advertiser has certainly come to embody that ideal. We are a community talking to itself through our local newspaper. Whether you see evidence of that at the Friday morning coffees, or in our spirited letters to the editor, in the many events and vigils and gatherings has promoted in the paper throughout our town, and in the editorials, the New Canaan Advertiser is part of the essential fabric of our town.
That is why I did not want to let this moment pass without recognizing the soul of a paper which has become the soul of our town, to take just one a moment during this period of transition to new ownership, and recognize the Hersam Family for their success and steadfast stewardship of a newspaper that has not only reflected but formed the soul of our community for well over a century. Since John E. Hersam’s single sheet in 1908 and his motto, “Grow or Go” both this town and our paper have grown beyond his wildest expectations.
Consider the changes that the Hersams have navigated. We may have had a railroad when the Hersams started this paper, but we were nothing special, just another simple shoe-manufacturing town connected to New York City by a branch of the main railroad. No port, no highway. Exactly one hundred years after the Advertiser started (2008) New Canaan would claim the highest median family income in the country, the best public school system in the state and 3rd best in the nation. So much has changed and yet since 1919 we still carol on Gods Acre every year, Rick Franco still shovels his own sidewalk and we all look for the Advertiser every Thursday. 
The Internet disrupted the news business and newspapers in particular, and yet New Canaan has always relied on the Advertiser as the best and most consistent source for local sports reporting. How many of us scan the pages each week for a mention of our children and the familiar names of our friends? So too for most of our lives we’ve relied on other sections School, Obituaries, Opinion, Around Town, Arts, Real Estate and Classifieds as the only way to really understand our community.
In this town you probably aren’t really dead until the Advertiser prints your obituary and the community that loved you can appreciate you and mourn your passing. Your Advertiser editorials have been our collective conscience, prodding us to action for over a century.
We are a community talking to itself and The New Canaan Advertiser, now in its 110th year is by any standard not just a good newspaper but an excellent one, both in the quality and depth of its reporting, the range of topics it covers, and the breadth of its influence on our town.
Thank you Hersam Family for an excellent first 110 years of the New Canaan Advertiser, and we wish the Hearst organization every success in following your example.