Stonington — Residents, unhappy with an Aug. 9 town meeting approval of a tax break for the developers of the former Campbell Grain site in downtown Pawcatuck, have forced the town to hold a referendum on the question.
Because the town will have to hold the referendum anyway, First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough said the town also plans to place on the ballot the question of whether marijuana sales and production will be allowed. That issue was slated to be voted on at a town meeting.
Chesebrough said Tuesday that the referendum on the tax break is tentatively being scheduled for Oct. 5 after Pawcatuck resident Tracy Swain led the effort to collect 326 signatures, far more than the 200 needed to force the referendum. Town Clerk Cindy Ladwig said Tuesday she had certified 236 of the signatures as valid, which means the Board of Selectmen will now have to set the date and call for the referendum.
Referendums typically cost the town $8,000 to $10,000 but that can be decreased if the hours of voting are reduced, an option Chesebrough said that is being considered. She said the voting also likely will be done at three polling stations instead of the usual five.
Swain said Tuesday she circulated the petition for several reasons, among them being the low turnout at the town meeting.
“I felt 71 people is such a low percentage of voters to decide such a massive financial issue for the town. It’s not enough,” she said.
Swain said her motion at the town meeting to put the issue on the ballot for the November election was ruled to be out of order. She also questioned the accuracy of the town meeting vote, saying town officials did not check the identification of those voting.
She said the public vote at the town meeting discourages people from voting no, especially those who work for the town.
She said voters were not able to get the information they needed about the issue before the town meeting. She added Pawcatuck residents also want to know why such housing projects always go in their village and not Mystic or the borough.
Proposed tax break
Residents at the town meeting voted 71-36 to approve a tax break agreement with Winn Development of Boston, which proposed to develop the site off Coggswell Street into 82 apartments.
The town has said the proposed fixed assessment would save Winn Development $690,748 in taxes over 10 years. During that time, Winn would pay $695,000 in taxes to the town. If the parcel remains vacant and undeveloped, it would generate less than $30,000 in taxes over the same period.
The town and Winn have said the project is economically feasible only if a fixed amount of reduced taxes is agreed upon over the next 10 years. Town officials, meanwhile, see the site as crucial for the redevelopment of the downtown and say it will provide more housing options for working-class residents.
Opponents to the tax break cite an increase in traffic, the affordable housing that already exists in Pawcatuck and the fairness of granting a tax break to a developer while other businesses and residents do not get a break.
The project will consist of a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom units that will be rented at prices affordable to people who earn 30%, 50% and 80% of the area median income. The project also will contain market-rate units. Plans also call for extending the public Pawcatuck Riverwalk to the property.
Winn is seeking $20 million in funding from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and the Connecticut Department of Housing through a competitive grant process. A contribution from the town improves Winn’s chances of obtaining the needed funding.
Chesebrough, a supporter of the tax break, said she hopes people come out to vote and educate themselves about the issue using valid information.
She said she understands the concerns residents have about traffic and other issues but said, “This is a long-empty lot that we have tried to market for a dozen years and there was absolutely no interest.”
“We have the opportunity now to make our community more inclusive (with affordable housing) while addressing a long-blighted property,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
She said the development will generate more pedestrian traffic downtown that will patronize existing businesses and possibly spur more investment. She said such projects create far less vehicle traffic than people expect.
Local marijuana sales?
The Board of Selectmen already had agreed that because it is such an important issue, voters should decide if the town should allow retail sales and processing of marijuana.
Earlier this month, Chesebrough said the plan was to hold a town meeting this fall, at which residents would debate and vote on the issue.
But on Tuesday, she said if that town is already holding a referendum on another issue, it makes sense to give people the opportunity to vote by ballot on the marijuana question.
According to the state law that legalized the recreational use of marijuana and took effect July 1, municipalities have discretion to allow or prohibit cannabis businesses within their borders, as well as regulate signs and operating hours.
The law allows one retailer and one retail grower for every 25,000 residents, which means Stonington can have one of each. Towns also can bill cannabis businesses up to $50,000 for the extra police and infrastructure required for the businesses to open. Towns also can implement a 3% tax on marijuana sales.
The opening of recreational marijuana shops in Massachusetts created traffic and long lines of customers and the shops continue to do brisk business. A Stonington marijuana store may be especially popular because of the town’s easy access from Interstate 95, and its proximity to Rhode Island, which does not allow the recreational sale and use of marijuana.
A marijuana store also could capitalize on the large numbers of tourists who flood into Mystic each year.
While there will now be a referendum vote, a town meeting still will be scheduled so residents can discuss the issue.