STONINGTON — With heavy voter participation on Tuesday, residents rejected a previously approved fixed tax assessment for an 82-unit affordable housing project slated for the Campbell Grain property in Pawcatuck. Voters also rejected — 2,106 to 1,816 — a cannabis prohibition ordinance, clearing the way for the town to allow one cannabis retailer and one grower in both the Town of Stonington and the Borough of Stonington.
Residents voted 2,764 to 1,173 to reject the 10-year $690,748 fixed abatement for developer WinnDevelopment that had been approved by voice vote at a town meeting on August 9. The company would have paid $695,000 in taxes during the 10-year period. The property currently generates $3,000 per year in taxes.
District Two, which includes Pawcatuck voters, voted 1,474 to 293 to overturn the ordinance.
The townwide turnout — 3,937 voters, or 27 percent — was the highest for a referendum since 2006, said First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough.
Tracy Swain, a resident of Pawcatuck who organized the petition to overturn the fixed abatement, was elated at the results of the referendum.
“I am excited for the residents because we’re telling other developers as well that we’re not a town that you can come to for a free handout,” said Swain, in the basement of Town Hall Tuesday night.
Swain said the referendum had raised a number of issues that Pawcatuck residents wanted town officials to hear.
“I think that maybe a lot of residents in Pawcatuck in particular might have voted on this because they felt like they weren’t being given answers and facts from the town hall on financial stuff. There was a big lack of transparency. There’s so much hurt with all of this that Pawcatuck is finally saying, ‘We’ve had enough,’” she said.
Chesebrough read aloud a statement at Town Hall after the vote tallies had been announced.
“Now that this vote is over, we all have another choice in front of us. And I hope that we choose to move forward together as a community. Most of our local projects are years in the making, and we hope that many of you will choose to stay engaged. The work done by our Town staff and volunteers who make up our nearly 30 Boards and Commission have an impact in our daily lives and citizen engagement is a critical part of the process,” she said.
“Public service is not easy, but it is important, and we genuinely ask that you choose to stay involved and help us identify solutions to the challenges we face as a community and build on opportunities before us. It is much easier to criticize each other, but what we need is people willing to come together to bring about solutions that will work for our community,” she said.
Selectman June Strunk said that when the project was approved a year ago, the governor had given elected officials special powers of approval because of the pandemic — but Chesebrough had insisted on voter approval of the tax abatement.
“We could have approved a special tax assessment without going to a town meeting, similar to how we approved the budget without going to referendum because of the pandemic. Danielle was very clear that we were going to wait until we [could] convene safely and have a town meeting and go through the regular process that the town has in our charter, and not take advantage of the powers that the governor granted to us. So that’s what we did and it’s really great this many people turned out,” Strunk said.
Selectman Deborah Downey said she was happy to see a large participation rate in the vote. “I’m hoping that bodes well for the future that maybe we’ll have better participation with our volunteers and our citizens.”
In a statement, Matt Robayna, project director at WinnDevelopment, said the company would continue to submit its application for $20 million in state financing even though the results of the referendum meant facing “an uphill battle in competing for scarce state funding with other Connecticut communities.”
“A local contribution is an important part of the competitive scoring, but we will work with Town officials to make the best case for why the state should invest in quality affordable housing at Campbell Grain,” Robayna wrote. “We firmly believe that Campbell Grain will deliver the quality affordable housing that people need, a stream of new tax revenue, and revived economic activity for Pawcatuck’s downtown.”
Swain said she plans to oppose the project if WinnDevelopment continues with the proposal.
Ashley Gillece, of Pawcatuck, said she thought the town needed to look at different ways of developing affordable housing besides working with large developers.
“That’s one thing that we haven’t talked about in town, it’s always these big developments. Let’s look at what other small towns are doing. And affordable housing might have to get separated from the EDC because really, those aren’t two things that necessarily should be together,” she said.
Chesebrough said Friday that WinnDevelopment had received feedback that the application had been rejected because of the lack of a 5 percent local match.
Lisa C. Kidder, director of Communications for the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, sent the following statement to CT Examiner concerning the 5 percent local match:
“A 5% “local match” of funding is not a pre-requisite, nor a de facto necessity, for a competitive tax credit award from CHFA. The 5% local match would only guarantee that a proposal receive 1 competitive point out of total potential 100 competitive points. Should a developer choose to go after this one point, examples would include local housing trust funds, grants, foundation awards, land contributions, tax abatement, block grant funds, and the Federal Home Loan Bank affordable housing program to name a few. The developer has many options within the competitive point ranking categories to increase the competitiveness of their application aside from pursuing other permanent funding sources to earn one point.”