Growing pains: What’s behind the town’s economy

Managing taxes is a balancing act between cutting spending and growing revenues, but neither is easy.

“I think it’s very difficult,” Chief Economist of Webster Bank Dr. Nicholas Perna told The Bulletin. “It’s not easy to get grand list growth. How do you get the commercial growth? What do you have to do?”

Perna said “significant growth usually requires some kind of sizable development,” but many towns have trouble attracting larger projects, and Wilton, according to one official, is especially stringent with what it allows in terms of commercial zoning.

“Traditionally, the focus in Wilton has been maintaining high quality of life, and that’s been achieved through very conservative zoning laws,” Town Planner Bob Nerney told The Bulletin.

“Eighty-five percent of the town is zoned for two-acre, single-family development. There are retail areas, but they by and large tend to parallel Route 7,” Nerney said.

Nerney thinks significant grand list growth for Wilton will likely come at the price of at least some portion of the town’s signature character.

“Sometimes you reach an intersection where policy decisions have to be made,” Nerney said. “I think that’s probably where we are.”

Dave Lisowski, Wilton’s tax assessor, agrees it’s not easy to attract significant commercial development, but he looks at revenue growth not as a way of driving down taxes, but as a necessary method of maintaining them at acceptable rates.

“If the grand list doesn’t grow approximately the same amount that the budget increases each year, personal property taxes are going to go up each year, so you have to have growth,” Lisowski said.

“That’s what the towns look to do — provide the services and keep the lid on taxes,” Lisowski said. “You have to.” In other words, reducing spending is only part of the puzzle. Officials should never neglect to massage their commercial tax base.

Nerney said his department is currently confronting some of the impediments to strong commercial growth.

“We’re starting to look at things like our Design Enterprise District regulations, which are really the bread and butter when it comes to economic development initiatives,” Nerney said. “That discussion’s going to play out in the coming weeks.”

“We’re also looking at the issue of age-restricted housing,” he added, “which many communities have, but Wilton does not.”

Perna made the observation that “one of the things that subtracts from the grand list is non-taxed properties,” which Wilton has its share of, though he added that “it’s usually not an issue in reasonably well-to-do towns.”

Wilton’s 2015 $4.3-billion grand list grew slightly over 2014, increasing by 0.18%.

Commercial property, assessed at $601,819,670, was up 0.10%. There are 183 commercial buildings assessed at $247,317,940, four apartment buildings assessed at $20,658,120, and 28 commercial condominiums assessed at $71,626,870. Land and commercial improvements make up the rest of the commercial base.

With ASML building a parking garage and construction of Phase Two of Wilton Commons underway this year, these projects will contribute to some growth in 2016.

That said, towns in this area usually “need another couple of shopping centers” to add significantly to their commercial bases, Perna said. Gaining public approval of those types of projects is not easily done.

“Somewhere near Wilton Center there must be 10 or 50 acres that could be zoned commercial, and suppose I want to put a big box store or a Costco. How would you feel about that?” Perna said.

The Crossways plaza off Route 7 has been up for sale since 2012. It’z zoned Wilton Center and could potentially allow for a supermarket or other complex, if the whole property were to be purchased and leveled.