Increasing Bethany's tax base: is anyone knocking?
Of the three towns in the Amity region, Bethany is the most rural. Its low density, 233.7 persons per square mile, puts it in a population category with Hebron (201), Granby (234) and Redding (255). Neighbor Woodbridge has 446.3 persons per square mile, Orange, 719.9 and nearby New Haven, a city density of 6,564.7 per mile.
As watershed for three water companies, approximately 40 percent of Bethany's land is protected open space. This helps the town retain some of its rural flavor, despite the burgeoning subdivision development of the 90's.
But the very factors that make Bethany a charming residential town also make it less attractive to businesses. The sparseness of the population makes most retailing difficult, if not impossible, and the lack of public water and sewage facilities are a deterrent to industry.
According to tax collector Lee Grabowski, "speaking as an ordinary citizen" not in his official role, "the challenge is to get something that matches Bethany, like software computer designers, that don't use a lot of resources or need large septic systems. People complain their taxes are too high, but then I point out that Orange is lower because of the Post Road, and they say, 'We don't want a Post Road.'"
First Selectman Craig Stahl says the biggest problem in developing the Business and Industrial Zone (B&I) tax base is the small number of acres available.
"We'll never get the tax relief Woodbridge can get or Orange gets on the Post Road. The cleaner a business we can bring into town, the better."
Three separate commissions have tried to boost the industrial and business tax base in Bethany over the last 35 years.
The latest, headed by realtor Tom Cavaliere, is still listed in the most recently available town report (1999-2000). But as former Horse Commissioner Arthur Rosson said in 1981 when he proposed using the municipally owned so-called "old airport property" for town events instead of industry, "no one's knocking down the door."
Purchased in 1967, that property was originally intended as a 120-acre industrial center. A brochure touting its advantages was even produced, but few parcels were sold. In 1978 a consultant from the Regional Planning Agency of South Central Connecticut was called in. He noted that there were "a lot of built in problems in trying to attract industrial development" to the site. In addition to the lack of public services, there was considerable bedrock and wetlands. He advised trying to find "service businesses."
The Amity 63 Shopping Center was constructed at the beginning of the housing boom and marketed as condominium retail units. It experienced difficulties right from the start, with a merry go round turnover of businesses: a tanning salon, two hardware stores, two grocery stores, two used article stores, a video parlor, a beauty parlor, a sundries store, and a Chinese take-out restaurant. Of the original occupants, only the pizza parlor survives. An office building behind it has had similar difficulties finding tenancy over the years.
A number of the town's other commercial spaces are available and empty. The former Bernard Burge and Entrata building is for sale, as is an industrial building on Munson Road. Perennial for rent or lease signs flag another industrial building on Munson Road and the partially burnt-out office complex on Amity Road.
Bucking that trend, Seymour Lumber recently filled a longtime vacant empty building on Amity Road, and restored a hardware store to the town along with construction supplies.
A total of four storage facilities, some to house heavy equipment, have either been built or are planned along the Rte. 63 strip. These metal buildings, considered an eyesore by some townspeople, yield taxes similar to a residence. While they add to the coffers and don't cost the town much in services, they use up scanty business-industrial land that might be better used for more tax friendly buildings. According to Finance Board member Michael Stearn, they cover a lot of land with an impervious surface, and yield very little return. A company like Laticrete, on the other hand, is assessed at $2,523,550, adding considerable revenue to the town.
Building an appropriate commercial tax base has been a dilemma for Bethany, one that seems to have daunted the town for thirty-five years. Looking ahead, First Selectman Stahl recognizes the challenge, "it's going to be difficult to bring our cost per household down."