Wilton’s not an easy town to sell, according to five local real estate agents who discussed what attracts and repels potential homeowners at the Board of Finance’s March 15 meeting.
Marion Filley, of Berkshire Hathaway, said town centers and taxes are very important to potential homeowners.
“I think people will compromise for a town center as they drive around to different towns. They also look at taxes,” said Filley.
“Our town centers are very important to outsiders. This is the impression they first get when they come to town, and a lot of our surrounding towns offer more. This has been a problem since I moved here in 1987.”
Filley said Wilton needs to offer more facilities to “these young families who are coming in for the school system” to make them want to move here.
“I love the the Norwalk River Valley Trail and Ambler Farm — we’ve got some great things, but maybe we need to focus on other things going on in town to make it more attractive,” she said.
“Certainly, the empty storefronts do not help us. I’ve never understood with Route 7 and the commercial base that we have why our tax base isn’t stronger than it is.”
Filley said she has compared town budgets in the area and found that Wilton has the highest cost per student.
“I think we need to be fiscally responsible, but I also think we need to be creative. We really need to spend our dollars wisely,” she said.
“We, as agents, take them to a variety of different towns and give them an overview and tell them what the towns have to offer. As enthusiastic as we are about the towns, the towns sell themselves, and taxes always come into the equation. They’ll go to towns with lower taxes.”
While the town’s education system and “laid-back,” “family-oriented” atmosphere attract potential homeowners, Realty Seven agent Lynne Murphy said, taxes are one of the biggest turnoffs.
“They come here for education, but once we start talking about what the town offers and they look at the taxes, it goes back to what the town offers,” she said, “and some of them just don’t feel there’s enough of a return — they’re not getting enough for what they’re paying, so they look to the other towns.”
Diane Millas, of William Raveis, said she recently had clients who were pretty much set on buying a home in Wilton, but “when they got into New Canaan, they called me and said they really loved the town and really wanted to expand their search into New Canaan and would buy a house that was less of a house for a little bit more money because they liked the town center better and the schools are very highly rated as they are in Darien and other towns.”
“I don’t think we can say anymore that we are ‘the best’ in the area, because the schools are all fairly comparable within very slight varying degrees,” she said.
Marianna LaSala, of the Higgins Group, said Wilton has always been a family town and people are moving here to raise families, “so the No. 1 thing has always been education.”
“I moved here in 1992 and back then they used to say, ‘We have these great schools,’ ‘The cost is very low, and ‘We are so fiscally responsible — it’s the best bang for your buck,’ but I don’t think we can say that anymore,” said LaSala. “I feel like our taxes are teetering right at that point where it’s really going to start affecting our real estate, because I’ve noticed that people — as soon as the last child graduates from Wilton High School, they’re like, ‘Pack it up. I’m not going to pay these taxes anymore.’” LaSala said she’s also talked to senior citizens in town who are “just barely getting by with [their] taxes.”
“It’s really hard, and I think you’re going to push people if you keep raising the taxes to the point where they’re like, ‘Wait a second — what am I getting for this? I don’t even have anyone in the schools anymore and my taxes are this high,’” she said.
Compared to similar surrounding towns, LaSala said, Wilton is “a little out of whack — our taxes are too high.”
“People looking at houses, more recently, are way more aware of taxes than before,” she said.
While people in their 30s move into town, Realty Seven broker Peg Koellmer said, people in their 40s are looking to “buy up” because once their children leave, their “sphere of influence is to move out of town or move into a condo, sadly, because of the taxes.”
The morning after the meeting, Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser circulated a comparison of Wilton and New Canaan. While both have roughly the same population — New Canaan’s is slightly higher — New Canaan boasts centralized downtown retail, the only amenity it has over Wilton.
The other advantage New Canaan has is a grand list twice as large as Wilton’s — $8.1 billion versus $4.3 billion — so its mill rate is much lower. However, Rutishauser wrote, when compared on a per-resident basis, “the correct way to compare towns of different size,” he said, Wilton’s Board of Selectmen operating budget is 4.6% lower than New Canaan’s.
As for the schools, the Wilton Board of Education’s proposed budget on a per-pupil basis is 4% lower than New Canaan’s but 5% higher per resident than in New Canaan. The latter variance is expected to shrink, since New Canaan is expecting 72 more students next year and Wilton is expecting 99 fewer.