Monday, July 8, 2019

Chairman's View: Retire, Reflect and Recharge (NC Advertiser column for July 11, 2019

I praised the Advertiser coffees as the place where a town comes together. In June I took a break from this weekly fret over New Canaan’s short-term concerns. In June we graduate, marry, retire, reflect and recharge. 
In 1914, at 73 years old, Claude Monet had established himself among the greatest artists of all time. Each of his paintings sold for what a Senator earned in a year. Nearly blind, he could have retired. Instead, he had a big idea and spent the last dozen years of his life working feverishly on eight large paintings. Too large for most walls, strange to collectors, and not particularly relevant to a world gripped by 40 million deaths in the First World War, views of a pond in his garden were considered a failure by many. They were hung in a dark room and mostly ignored. It would not be until 30 more years passed that we would begin to understand and appreciate. One hundred years later, 1 million people visit Monet’s Water Lilly paintings each year in Paris’s Orangerie Museum. These paintings are among his greatest works. (a small version recently sold for $54 million.) 
June is for reflection, introspection and big thoughts. It is a time of renewal and optimism, a chance to re-assess and then to look forward — sometimes way back and way forward. During graduations at New Canaan High School, the College of William & Mary, Elon University and the 600-year old University of St. Andrews, I was reminded of the many blessings we enjoy and filled with an optimism for our future. New Canaan senior Kathleen Reeves said it beautifully: “Combined we can solve the problems we all have our sight set on solving, combined we can raise valleys to new heights, combined we can make what’s wrong, right. Class of 2019, we have power inside and among us that we are ready to ignite.” 
Thank you, retiring educators Joanne Rocco, Ari Rothman, and Richard Webb for more than 100 years of combined service to New Canaan’s students. Start your next grand painting.
Welcome new recruits Erin McCarthy, Emily Clark, Joseph Schinella and Giancarlo Vincenzi to New Canaan’s Police force. Our 218-year old town and 130-year old department look forward to the next 100 years of your service. 
New Canaan’s Town Council will also begin to take the long view. We are reassessing our role in Town Government. We will begin to define for the public our long-term goals and objectives, setting expectations and priorities at the beginning of every budget year and evaluating our progress periodically. We run the risk of becoming complainers and critics. We want to do more and have convened the first two of many meetings designed to improve the process and, again to quote, “make what’s wrong, right.” 
New Canaan is looking back on 50 years of extraordinary growth and prosperity, one of the nation’s great towns with a legacy of low taxes, great schools and great beauty. Like many of our volunteering and retiring citizens, like our graduates, like our recruits, and like Claude Monet at 73 it is time to begin work on our next masterpiece.

First Half Market Report for Fairfield County, Connecticut

This is the 6 month report for Fairfield County.
Good news: interest rates at record lows, 3%
Bad news: there is little urgency among buyers 
Good news: budget skips tolls & regionalization
Bad news: state budget fails to cut any spending
Good news: Connecticut still cheaper than NY 
Bad news: still can't get to Connecticut quickly

Cos Cob - This is the worst year in 5 years by any metric. The number of sales is down 53% to 20. The average price is down 15% to $1.42mm. Inventory is up 20%. Condo sales are steady while the average price is down 28% to $818k. Cos Cob is among the most expensive towns and the 83% decline in sales over $3mm to only 1 sale shows no sign of reversing.
Darien - Inventory is down 12%, sales are up 8%, and average price has declined 14% to a very affordable $1.45mm. With the second best tax rates in Connecticut, excellent schools, beaches and easy commute, Darien will remain one of the brighter points of light in Fairfield County.  See 175 Brookside Ave, a c. 1800 antique on 4 acres for $2.8

Easton - The number of Easton sales have been steadily increasing since 2012, now 62 with another 12 pending as the absorption rate drops to only 10.2 months. Is it any wonder with an average price of $622k in a market that boasts A+ schools? If you don't commute to New York City you're probably looking in Easton (and Redding). Consider 109 Maple Road in Easton is outstanding at only $579k.

Fairfield - The number of sales has steadily risen in Fairfield for 8 years in a row to 364, up 1% from last year. This year we saw a 7% decrease in average price to $709k, and no change in inventory. Condo sales are up 13% to 61. The schools are ranked A+ by Niche and the commute to NYC is only 11 minutes further than Westport where homes cost twice as much. High end is soft here too. You can get incredible beach-front value at 1053 Fairfield Beach Road for only $2.45mm

Greenwich - Greenwich is recovering from a terrible first quarter. Now, with 128 sales, down 10% from a year ago and the lowest total since 126 in 2012 we have reason to be cautiously optimistic that momentum is shifting. Average price is $2.78 million and rising. As the most expensive market in Fairfield County, Greenwich is a blue-chip stock, a bellwether for the high end, usually the first in the county to recover.

New Canaan - Closings are up 11% year to date. Average closing price is down 16% to $1.40 million. Active inventory is down 9% to 330 homes, declining from a peak of 347. 81% of the sales are under $2mm. Condo sales are down 24% and average condo price remains $734k. Inventory is down 9% from last year, 330 houses, and down from the peak of 347. Despite being one of the more expensive towns in the market New Canaan is showing great resiliency under $2mm (where 81% of sales occur). According to this week's WSJ millennials are on the move. Expect New Canaan & Darien to be major beneficiaries of the flight to better suburbs from New York City.

Norwalk - Strong sales in May and June were not enough to for full recovery, as year to date sales of 290 remains down 6% but fairly typical of the last eight years. Average closing price fell 3% to $585k. while inventory rose 3% to 413 houses available. The strongest sector of the Norwalk market were in the categories under $600k where 190 listings represents only a 4.5 month supply of inventory. 

Old Greenwich - Sales unchanged at 41. Prices unchanged at $2.4 million. Inventory up 4% at 92 homes available. Condo prices and inventory also similar to a year ago. The 41 closings are in the middle of an 8 year range of 34 to 56 sales. The average sale price of $2.4 million has been rising consistently since 2013. 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. There are only 22 houses under $1.5mm, a 7.8 month supply of houses. Old Greenwich is coveted by commuters and will continue to outperform the market.

Redding - Redding is experiencing a 24% increase in sales to 62 while average price remains at the $538k level. Inventory is down 6% from 133 to 125. 48 of the 62 sales occurred between $400k and $800k, making Redding a relative bargain given its A+ ranked school system, 15th best in the state. With a decrease of 28% in inventory, expect prices to rise and the pace of sales to slow as buyers respond to a lack of inventory.

Ridgefield - 149 sales each of the last two years, and about average for the last 8 years. Prices are up 4% to $698,000 while inventory is up 9% to 327, a 11.9 month supply. Condo sales, which currently make up 45% of the Ridgefield market, are down 12% and condo prices declined 14% while condo inventory remained unchanged. Only 10% of all sales occur above $1mm.

Riverside - Riverside is not doing well in comparison to Old Greenwich and 37 sales is the worst start in 8 years, down 25% from last year. Average price of $1.86 million is the low point of an 8 year range of $1.9 to $2.7 million. Sellers are pulling back and Inventory is down 15% from last year, 92 houses, an 11.6 month supply. Despite being less expensive with an easier commute, Riverside is suffering worse than the larger Greenwich market which is down to an average price point of $2.78 million. 

Rowayton - We see a 10% increase in sales volume to 35 over last year's 8-year low of 32 and a 7% increase in average price to $1.22mm and a 16% increase in inventory to 92, a whopping 15.3 month supply and 25% higher than this time last year. For most of the last year Rowayton has had a 10.7 month supply of inventory. 14 Westmere Avenue in Rowayton is a beautiful waterfront house for only $2.4mm.

Stamford -The only category in Stamford that has more sales than last year is in the $600,000 to $700,000 band. Inventory rose in almost every category. The average closing price has fallen 3% to $632k. House sales are down 14% and condo sales are down 15%. Surprisingly to me, the Stamford house volume is only $201 million which is only 40% of Greenwich ($551mm ), trails Fairfield ($258mm) and Westport ($220mm), and is only slightly higher than Darien ($193mm). This month we take a granular look at Stamford's 12 neighborhoods showing the price per foot averages for homes and condos.

Weston - The average price rose this year 4% to $768k after 4 straight years of declines. Perhaps Weston has seen the bottom and prices could rise? Not as long as Weston averages 150k to 250k more expensive than its two immediate small town neighbors, Eason and Redding, As long as averages prices are roughly the same price as larger neighbor Wilton, Weston will continue to struggle to find its footing. Currently, there is a 13.5 month supply of inventory, down from 14.4 months a year ago.

Westport - Westport is having a tough year, down 25% in the number of sales for most of the period and ending down 21% The average price has declined 7% to $1.38mm  and the total dollar volume has declined 27% year over year. The good news in Westport is the third lowest mill rate in Connecticut. The bad news is one of their schools remains closed for repair and renovations.

Wilton - is looking good with a 11% increase in sales, 101 versus 91 a year ago with no change in inventory, 259 houses. The average price is down substantially to $768k from $909k a year ago. Prices steadily climbed from $794,000 8 years ago to a peak of $944,000 in 2016 before returning to 2012 levels. With prices in the 700’s Wilton is an attractive trade-up market for many seeking top schools within a 75 minute commute of the city.
The consolidated Connecticut report is here.

$4,499,000  61 Sturbridge Hill Road, NC
$4,000,000  227 Lambert Road, NC
$3,200,000 84 Middle Ridge Road, NC
$2,900,000  27 Rippowam Road, NC
$2,749,000  175 Brookside Road, Darien$2,295,000  258 Wahackme Road, NC $2,200,000  1293 Ponus Ridge, NC
$2,125,000 83 Oak Street, NC
$1,975,000  269 Dans Highway, NC $1,800,000  431 Greenley Road, NC$1,795,000  49 Gerrish Lane, NC$1,700,000  94 Indian Rock Road, NC
$870,000  45 Sunrise Avenue, NC 
$750,000  131 River Street, NC 
$739,000 119 Forest Street, NC condo $700,000  1303 Ponus Ridge, NC land 
$15,000 111 Parish Lane, NC rental

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Letter to the Editor: Naughton, Mackle and LaGattuta for Board of Education


It’s caucus time again and as George Orwell once said "there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics...All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” (He was probably thinking of the Town Council when he wrote that.) Fortunately for New Canaan the contested race for the Board of Education contains none of those things. We have 5 excellent candidates for the 3 seats. Here are the 3 most excellent picks. I’m voting for Bob Naughton, a father of 4 who I have known many years. Bob has experience in both technology and in the Educational Assessment field, two critical skills that should be quite useful to this board.  I’m voting for Julie Mackle who I’ve known since we graduated New Canaan High School in 1985. Julie was the smartest in our class and now has 30 years more perspective on what makes our schools great. I’m voting for Daniel Lagattuta because he also hails from the education field. He runs a small business providing professional development for teachers. His financial experience running a business and understanding of teacher development is a powerful combination that no other candidate provides. 

John Engel III

Connecticut Market Reports for the First Half of 2019

CT First Half Header New Canaan 2.jpg

The Connecticut First Half 2019 Market Reports are now available in Pilot. You can find the template in the Promo Blast section, called "CT First Half 2019 Market Reports". If you type "CT" in the search bar it will appear among the CT template selections. 

Just a reminder, quarterly reports include an additional page for each town's absorption rates for houses, and a page on absorption rates for condos for the towns of Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, New Canaan, and Ridgefield.

Here are direct links to each town's report: 

Here is a link to the report that includes a page on each town. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Chairman's View: The Best Small Town in America (New Canaan Advertiser June 13, 2019)

New Canaan was just named one of the “15 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2019” by Smithsonian magazine. Every year their editors search the entire country for places that sing to our imaginations and offer a distinct sense of place. New Canaan is now recognized as the best of small town America.

That’s some well-deserved recognition at a time when we need it. Local news is often negatively focused on the slings and arrows directed at us from Hartford, our few self-imposed problems combined with certain wistfulness about the way life used to be in our small town. That can make us feel vulnerable and low.  Thank you, Smithsonian, for recognizing New Canaan is beautiful and vibrant and has much to be thankful for. We are not only a great place to live but also a great place to visit.

So, what did the Smithsonian editors find here to crow about? First, they began New Canaan’s story with architectural pioneer Walter Gropius and his influence on the Harvard Five architects who lived and built 80 extraordinary houses here.  The editors called our architecture an “unusual blend of modernism” that has continued with the “sleek” River Building at Grace Farms, and is juxtaposed with the “stunning” Waveny castle and our stone Carriage Barn. Most importantly the magazine recognized that architecture is alive here: the Glass House summer party, the Historical Society’s Mad for Modern gala, the New Canaan Library’s “Glass House Presents” lecture series and heck, just slowing down for afternoon tea with Frank at Grace Farms are just some of the ways we continuously celebrate and live with New Canaan’s uniquely great architecture. (By the way a new architectural foundation is opening its columned porch on God’s Acre and planning their first exhibition)

Second, the Smithsonian called our walkable downtown a “Fairfield County rarity”. It is. They noted the tented home of Summer Theatre of New Canaan on the way into town as well as the vibrant mix of boutique shops, high-end retailers, cozy breakfast eateries and Elm Restaurant which they called “high-end” but is only one of 50 first-class restaurant choices spanning the full range of family to formal.

We are beginning to appreciate the value of attracting visitors to our town and recently created a 15-person committee of experts (the TEDAC) to identify, cultivate and grow what is awesome about this town and begin to communicate it to others. 

I’d like to add one essential thing that Smithsonian failed to mention: the people. There are plenty of pretty, but mostly empty, towns across America. New Canaan’s fabulous downtown with its awesome architecture and all of those arts and non-profits wouldn’t be worth visiting if they weren’t full of the most interesting people. We are out shopping, spilling on to the sidewalks on restaurant row, waving out our windows at the crossing guard, beeping hello at baby carriages along South Avenue. We are out walking the Irwin paths, running the Waveny trails, biking the back-country, filling our pretty churches Sunday mornings and our bleachers on Friday nights. Thousands come to the Caffeine & Carburator car shows, picnic on the 4thof July, light the menorah and carol on God’s acre. If you are a visitor to our town it’s the people you’ll meet who make up the foreground, behind whom a 200 year tapestry of fascinating architecture and commerce are only the physical record of the way New Canaan lives. It’s a great time to re-discover New Canaan.

Chairman's View: Honing Our Zoning (New Canaan Advertiser May 23, 2019)

Chairman’s View: Honing our zoning

In 1982, New Canaan matriarch Mabel Lamb is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “There are two reasons why people want to live in New Canaan — zoning and schools.” We talk a good deal about schools, but zoning regulation has equal impact on the character and economics of our town.
The Planning & Zoning Commission asked me to speak at its meeting Tuesday, May 28. It caused me to reflect. They might be New Canaan’s hardest working board, with meetings that can last till midnight. When they deliberate on a high-profile project like the Roger Sherman or Merritt Village, it is a major televised event and the room is full to overflowing. Clearly, zoning and its proper enforcement is of interest to us all and a most important function of our town government. They are the first line of defense of our property values.
It has been 12 years since we rewrote our zoning regulations. In 2007, we recognized that something of New Canaan’s character was being lost as boxy McMansions replaced diminutive antiques. If we couldn’t slow progress, we could certainly point her in the right direction. In that 2007 rewrite we added concepts like “loom factor” and made front porches popular again by exempting them from building coverage. The effect of those rules was a better and more varied architecture.
In 2014, we had the foresight to adopt the Plan of Conservation and Development. That document, born of much civic soul-searching, articulates in land-use terms what is important to our community: a healthy downtown, adequate commuter and retail parking, open space, walkability and sidewalks, more senior housing, more affordable housing and so on. More importantly, we formed a POCD Implementation Committee that takes action on the principles of the Plan of Conservation and Development, writing new regulations as necessary. Recent deliberations include sidewalk sandwich board displays in the downtown and Airbnb restrictions.
To keep up with changing times and new demands P&Z has amended the 2007 regulations 46 times, often amending the amendment. Applicants author many of these text changes for the commission out of self-interest. Text changes are becoming the rule, not the exception. If you can’t get a variance, then ask for a special permit. We color outside the lines so often that the original guidelines may become indistinct. As soon as we finish one amendment, we take up the next, a pattern of constant revision. But is revision progress?
Rewrite the zoning regulations. Take the current regulations, the 46 amendments, the principles of the Plan of Conservation and Development and the collective experience of the current board, hire some experts to guide you, and write the regulations for the next 20 years.
We have a conversation about our schools every year during budget season. But there is no annual public review of Planning & Zoning, no periodic event that causes us to ask ourselves if we are getting it right. Bad zoning can have a lasting negative impact. We need to be writing the next set of good zoning laws that reflect the needs of our changing community well into the future.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. Chairman’s View expresses the opinions of the chairman and not necessarily any other member of the Town Council.

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.