Contention abounds at public hearing

BEACON FALLS — It’s no secret that the state’s purchase of 11 acres in the industrial park on Lancaster Drive will have a direct impact on future town revenues. Residents’ concerns about the regional fire training school slated for construction there, however, center not only on the town’s tax collection rates, but on somewhat more speculative questions—will anyone want to develop the land abutting the school? Will current industrial park tenants eventually leave because of the facility? Will the training school affect the values of nearby properties?

Resident Howard Daniels waits to ask his question to the Valley Fire Chiefs and state DPW spokesman.

The Valley Fire Chiefs, who selected the property in 2008 after a search that lasted close to a decade and spanned most of the lower Naugatuck River Valley, assured town residents at a public hearing Monday that whatever impact the school has on tax rolls, it will be a state-of-the-art facility that will present no incentive for nearby commercial taxpayers to leave and nothing to dissuade potential buyers from doing business in Beacon Falls.

As a state facility, the Valley Regional Fire Training School will be exempt from local property taxes. The state Office of Policy Management administers a program known as PILOT, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, wherein OPM awards towns, from its yearly budget, up to 45 percent of what a commercial taxpayer would pay for the same property (excepting correctional facilities and the Connecticut Valley Hospital facility, for which towns receive 100 percent and 65 percent, respectively).

Right now, the undeveloped tract, which is valued at $545,550, is worth just less than $14,000 in annual property taxes under the town’s current, 25.6-mill rate. The town will be due an annual PILOT payment of approximately $6,000 until a facility is built and the land’s value increases. Off the bat, the state’s purchase of the land is a $10,000 annual loss for the Town of Beacon Falls.

First Selectman Sue Cable, far right, introduces representatives of the Valley Fire Chiefs, who are seated behind her.

Once the training facility is built, First Selectman Sue Cable and Economic Development Commission Chairman Anthony San Angelo project the town will lose between $60,000 and $100,000 in potential property taxes—those estimates, it must be noted, hinge upon the supposition that the land could have and would have been developed into a fully-taxable commercial operation in the near future.

Furthermore, according to an OPM spokesman contacted about this matter for an earlier Citizen’s News report, PILOT payments rarely, if ever, are awarded at the full, 45-percent statutory rate. Office of Policy Management, like other state agencies, is subject to fluctuating appropriations from the state legislature, and towns, in turn, must make do with the PILOT payments OPM can afford to make each year.

At Monday’s public forum, the fire chiefs deferred questions about taxable property to members of state delegation—state Sen. Joseph Crisco (D-Woodbridge) and state Rep. Theresa Conroy (D-Seymour) were in attendance.

“If there’s not a measure to move the fire school, that is going be our commitment—to go forward getting as much PILOT money as we can to make sure Beacon Falls isn’t getting hurt financially by this purchase,” Conroy said. “We are committed to making sure that whatever we do do is great for the town.”

“The key here is to make sure you get the maximum,” Crisco added.

Even if the town does get the maximum, however, it has still lost valuable industrial land to a buyer who can pay no more than 45 percent of what a commercial owner would pay, and only then when it can afford to.

Residents Ed Groth (left) and Brian Ploss expressed concerns about the fire school's location and its potential impact on the town's commercial tax base.

This appeared to be the chief concern among residents such as Brian Ploss, who noted, “The simple fact is, you picked one of the prime avenues where we can try to gain tax revenues. … Pennies on the dollar on promises that aren’t going to come through aren’t going to do us any good. We are the smallest town in area, probably one of the smallest towns in the state, period. … It’s going to be a crippling effect on this town that we may not be able to recover from.”

San Angelo, the town’s EDC chair, further contended the school would decrease property values and scare off potential new buyers.

Already Dr. Sudipta Dey, who had initially planned to build a medical facility on a neighboring tract he has already purchased, balked and reneged on those plans once he heard about the training school. Rey spoke at length at the hearing, assuring firemen he had no problem with the school but saying the uncertainty about a medical facility’s future near a training school posed too great a risk for investment.

“I really couldn’t invest that amount of money to build a medical facility and office and then see what happens when you start doing the fire training,” Dey said. “I fully understand what you’re saying—that there won’t be much smoke, and not much activity, and little fires—but how is it going to affect me in the future? I don’t know. … The timing was wrong.”

Dr. Supdipta Dey (standing, in black) suggested the state might consider buying his land, too.

In the night’s only moment of levity, Dey grinningly asked Don Ouillette, a state Department of Public Works representative, whether the state would consider buying his land, too—a suggestion that garnered applause and some laughter.

Ouilette, the department’s assistant director of project management and its point man on the fire training school, noted that “[the school] will be state-of-the-art. … It will look like a college campus when it’s said and done.”

Ouillette emphasized that only one of several buildings would burn wood and hay and produce a small amount of smoke. The approximately 1,200-square-foot, concrete “burn building,” fire school Assistant Director of Training Jim Vincent said, “is not a big building, it’s not going to be burning continuously [and] there’s not going to be a big smoke plume.” He said typically, trainers burn about two wooden pallets and two bales of hay at a time to simulate emergency conditions for firefighters in training.

“We want to be good neighbors,” added Valley Regional Fire Training School President Ken Mitchell, when residents of the nearby Pond Spring Village 55-and-older community expressed concerns about smoke and noise. “I don’t know what your concern would be, because I can assure you that the school would be less noisy than a factory there, operating Monday through Saturday, or maybe seven days a week. There’s going to be a lot less traffic generated here than there would be for an industrial building or a factory or whatever could go in there. … The water is all recaptured; there’s no runoff and it’s all recycled. I know people have visions of 15 or 20 years ago at the Derby fire school where they used to have the open oil pits and they’d burn them and the smoke used to come down. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Not everyone was convinced.

“You’re talking senior citizens in that area with health problems, possibly,” said Paul Block, a Pond Spring Village resident. “You’re telling me a little smoke won’t hurt. Well, a little smoke does hurt. Okay? Especially when you’re right next door. … There was no input from your staff to the residents, nevermind the legislators. You didn’t talk to us about it. You didn’t talk to me. I’m your neighbor. You try to tell me that you’re going to be a good neighbor, but you didn’t talk to me.”

Richard Minnick, a member of both the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission and the Regional Planning Committee of the Council of Governments of the Central Naugatuck Valley, likewise felt slighted by an alleged lack of communication and contended the state hadn’t taken the proper regulatory steps before purchasing the property. Ouillette, the DPW spokesman, maintained the state had gone through the steps it was required to take under state statute.

State Department of Public Works project manager Don Ouilette displays a concept drawing of the fire training school.

In response to Minnick’s concerns and Cable’s assertion that “communication sucked, to put it bluntly [prior to the deal],” Ouillette and the fire chiefs presented photocopies of legal notices and requests for proposals that were printed in local newspapers. In December 2008 the Waterbury Republican-American printed an article about the impending land deal and the fire school, specifically mentioning 11 acres in Pinesbridge industrial park. The purchase agreement for the Lancaster Drive site was signed in June 2008, according to Valley Fire Chiefs Treasurer Charles Stankye Jr.

Even though the fire chiefs had reached an agreement with the previous owner in the summer of 2008, the land wasn’t actually purchased until this summer, when the state released a bonding package with money earmarked for the fire training school.

“This sale was something that was posted for years, and unfortunately it sat on the table,” said Vaughan Dumas, the fire school’s vice president. “Now all of a sudden, the purchase was made and everyone knew about it. I would think that if there was concern beforehand, why wasn’t something said when it was put on the table that we were looking to purchase the property?”

Cable maintains the fire chiefs pursued the purchase agreement without consulting her and that she didn’t find out about it until Crisco announced the bond allocation in a press release.

“Quite honestly, it wasn’t until I read the article in the paper, and that was the day I called Joe [Crisco] and Theresa [Conroy] and said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Cable said.

“I’ve met with your first selectman I don’t know how many times, but at various times to talk about different properties,” Stankye said of his years-long hunt for property well-suited to a modern fire training school.

Cable said these were passing, speculative discussions that never evolved into more serious talks about a possible land deal.

About 50 people attended the public forum on Monday night, which lasted about 90 minutes. Crisco’s challenger in the 17th Senate District, Tamath Rossi, declined to comment on the fire school and said she was there to get a better feel for the issue.