Municipalities wary of larger state role in transit-oriented development

March 29, 2016

Revival this short legislative session of a controversial plan to place in state hands greater oversight of development on or near busway depots and rail stations is gaining wider support from municipalities, but is still raising concerns from some critics.

Senate Bill 19, which proposes to create the quasi-public Transit Corridor Development Assistance Authority (TCDAA), is a reworked version of a measure that failed in last spring’s legislative session to create a statewide overseer of public and private development adjacent to state-funded transportation initiatives.

Critics say the revised measure is a veiled effort by the state to interfere in towns’ sovereign authority to oversee how land inside their borders is used.

Supporters — including the Malloy administration — counter that, at its core, the measure aims to unlock the development potential for hundreds of developed/undeveloped acres next door to existing or planned busway and rail depots statewide.

The bill recently passed the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee and has several measures in it to placate concerns raised by municipalities last year. It requires, for example, a town or city to invite the TCDAA to participate in a project within its borders and forces the authority to abide by local zoning, subdivision and wetland regulations.

No Eminent Domain

This version also is stripped of a provision contained in last year’s bill that would have given the state eminent domain powers to seize private property to clear the way for development. That provision raised deep concerns from local governments and ultimately led to the bill’s failure, officials said.

The new bill also gives communities that host transit-oriented development a say in the authority’s affairs, by making them eligible for seats on its board. Furthermore, SB 19 embraces a more inclusive name for the agency, inserting “assistance” into its title.

The measure is being proposed as several major transportation initiatives take root in Connecticut, including the 9.4-mile CTfastrak busway, which opened in March 2015, linking New Britain to downtown Hartford. It currently averages more than 16,000 riders daily, many of whom are potential diners, shoppers and tenants for various housing and retail options developers are eager to provide along the busway corridor.

Meanwhile, parallel efforts are underway to enhance commuter-rail service between Hartford and New Haven, and communities in between, widening the door to more private investment in development along those routes, too, observers say.

Opposing viewpoints

State Sen. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton) said she still opposes the measure because cities and towns already rely on their own planning and zoning commissions to guide their land-use decisions. Moreover, Boucher said, the state’s fiscal crisis is no time to be allocating $250,000 to staff and run another bureaucracy.

“They can’t manage their own departments, and other agencies of the state are in trouble,” she said. “And now they want to impose themselves on local towns and cities?”

In Newington, where consideration of any project in or adjacent to the town’s transit corridor is under a one-year moratorium through June, Republican Mayor Roy Zartarian, who also testified against SB 19, likened it to the mythic “Trojan horse” of Greek lore. Newington is home to two CTfastrak depots.

“I think it’s a first step … to take over control of transit-oriented development,” Zartarian said of the state’s intent. “We know development is going to happen, but we want to be the one calling the shots.”

But some communities and the regional government councils to which they belong support creating a transit-development authority.
Lyle Wray, executive director of Hartford-based Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), said his member towns host 15 CTTransit and CTfastrak stations. Many, Wray said, are eager for development of apartments, retail and other commercial and public spaces next door to those stations, and a transit-development authority could accommodate those aims.

“You are helping towns to do the economic development they want,” Wray said.

Small Towns Embrace Bill

The Connecticut Council of Small Towns (COST), of which Newington is among 115 municipal members, reversed course this year and is embracing SB 19, largely because the eminent-domain provision is gone and a provision giving TOD communities more say in the authority’s affairs was added, said COST Executive Director Betsy Gara.

“We want to ensure municipalities and councils of governments have a seat at the table,” Gara said.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments also support the measure. The Stamford-based Western Connecticut Council of Governments, representing communities in the southwest corner, opposes the bill — again.

The state Department of Transportation, meantime, referred questions about SB 19 to the state Office of Policy and Management (OPM), whose undersecretary for legislative affairs, Gian-Carl Casa, testified on OPM’s behalf in support of the measure.

Casa said the TCDAA could prove invaluable to communities that tap its expertise without having to hire extra staff or train existing ones. Moreover, involving TCDAA in commercial development would be voluntary for communities, Casa and other SB 19 supporters say.

“Many municipalities are asking for help in doing complex TOD projects at transit hubs,” Casa said via email. “The municipal supporters say that local governments often do not have the expertise that a focused assistance authority can give them.”

Would Enhance Development

East Hartford Mayor Marcia LeClerc, who sits on the board of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA), which coordinates public-private investment around the Capital City, says the TCDAA would enhance her town’s development efforts. CTfastrak is on the verge of expanding its regular routes into the town and beyond.

“TOD projects are ideal for communities like East Hartford and will drive demand for housing, jobs and retail in our town,” LeClerc said via email. “I have no concerns about the transit authority’s impact on East Hartford specifically.”

Other communities, such as West Hartford, with transit-oriented developments either under way or planned, are ambivalent as to prospects for an agency whose aims would be similar to CRDA.

“I don’t think it would be something we would be interested in,” West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said of the proposed TOD agency. “It wouldn’t make much of a difference.”

West Hartford’s two CTfastrak stations at the corner of New Park and Flatbush avenues, and at the intersection of New Park and New Britain avenues, have drawn development proposals, Van Winkle said.

Cumberland Farms is erecting a convenience store across from the New Park-Flatbush station; the town’s housing authority bought a former Pontiac dealership on New Park Avenue, on which it proposes to erect affordable apartments in a building that also offers first-floor retail and office space.

The state will host a CTfastrak transit-oriented development open house at West Hartford’s Elmwood Community Center on Mon., April 4, from 6 to 8 p.m.