Knowing that residents want their taxes lowered — “they don’t want them flat, they don’t want them to grow” — First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice is looking for opportunities to save money through shared services with other towns and increase the grand list by encouraging development.
In a discussion with The Bulletin at her office last week, Vanderslice explained a partnership with Weston intended to reduce energy costs. Noting similarities between the two towns, Vanderslice said Wilton and Weston are “ideal partners” to work together.
Weston has had three applications on a waitlist for a virtual net metering program with Eversource. Wilton is already reaping the benefits of the solar panels it has on several school roofs, but virtual net metering allows a municipality to reap the benefits of energy produced by a solar field elsewhere. It is a benefit available only to the state, municipalities and farms.
“That energy generated in that solar field would go back to Eversource and then Eversource gives the municipality a credit,” she said. Weston had three applications submitted a number of years ago to the program that is now ended. (See related story on page 1A about state Rep. Tom O’Dea’s efforts to reopen the program.)
One Weston application was approved and has been exercised. A second was recently approved and Weston discovered it cannot use all the power. As a result of talks between Vanderslice and Weston First Selectman Chris Spalding, Wilton was offered the excess power, which measures more than 800,000 Kwh.
Weston had a third application on the waitlist for 1 megawatt (more than 1.6 million Kwh), which it realized it did not need.
“We submitted an application,” for that power, Vanderslice said. “They were first in line and now we’re first in line, so we took their spot.”
“If we’re lucky, we’ll get taken off the waitlist” and pick up the power, she said.
This would likely be just one means of saving money by sharing services. Wilton and Weston are also looking at a joint consultant to look at the transfer station, which is costing Wilton taxpayers as much as $300,000 a year. That is still in the discussion stage.
Emphasizing government can only cut so much and retain essential services, Vanderslice said development is essential, but in a way in which the community has a say.
“I want people to invest in Wilton,” she said, “but the moratorium on 8-30-g is going to expire at the end of 2019.” That is the state regulation regarding affordable housing.
“The property that would appeal to an 8-30-g developer, which is going to be property that’s most likely along Route 7, because it has water and sewer; I’d like to see those properties be developed now, in a non-8-30-g manner, and that was the point of messaging out that we’re interested in development. To the extent that these large parcels are developed now, then the Planning and Zoning Commission and the community have a voice. If those sit empty and then the moratorium is lifted, then an 8-30-g developer can come in and develop them however they want.
“So we could end up with significantly higher density and maybe not the kind of development that we’re looking for,” she said.
“From the time I took office my goal has been let’s get these properties that are on the market and developable, let’s get them developed in a way we are comfortable with.”
That is why Vanderslice has been supportive of the Sunrise Living senior facility under construction and the Wilton Heights proposal at 300 Danbury Road.
Residential development holds more promise than commercial or retail development, Vanderslice said.
“There is no commercial market,” she said. “The vacancy rate in Fairfield County for offices is 25%, two of our commercial office buildings went into foreclosure. There just isn’t that demand, so it’s unrealistic to think someone’s going to come in and build commercial space.”
With commercial development a non-starter, boosting retail is getting a look and the best way to do that is through density, Vanderslice said. “If we have that development at 300 Danbury Road that helps.”
Also along those lines, the Planning and Zoning Commission is looking at hiring a consultant to create a master plan for Wilton Center which affords asking the question, “Is there something we can be doing as a town to incentivize retail?” she said. Municipalities are allowed to offer tax incentives — which are essentially tax abatements, deferrals to be paid at a later date — in Connecticut.
“I’ve asked the town attorney to give me some guidance on that,” she said. “Can you do it just for downtown? … I do think that is something we need to look at.”
Vanderslice is supportive of the possibility of more senior housing in town. The proposal for Brightview — which has asked to buy a small slice of land from the town — would be different than anything in Wilton at the moment, offering a continuum of care from independent living, to assisted living, to memory care and enhanced care.
“Their competitor is something more like Meadow Ridge in Redding,” she said. Unlike Meadow Ridge, which residents buy into, Brightview is a rental situation.
“We have lost a lot of residents to Meadow Ridge, we’ve lost a lot of valuable residents, volunteers, donors … so this provides an opportunity for people to stay in Wilton or have your parent in Wilton and also if it goes through, because it’s a rental versus a condominium it makes it a little more accessible.
“So that’s something new we don’t have in Wilton. We want to keep empty nesters.”
“I think as long as we have the mix of the right kind of housing, which is why I think it’s important for 300 Danbury Road, because it’s a different kind of housing, it’s for people who aren’t ready yet for [senior housing] or people not ready to buy a house.”
“I’m actually happy to have this development to support our tax base.”