House Bill 6851: Eyes focused on transit proposal

Please don't mistake silence for lack of interest: Plenty of people are watching it like hawks.
“It” is House Bill 6851, developed by Governor Dannel P. Malloy, which would create a Connecticut Transit Corridor Development Authority (TCDA) with substantial influence over what is developed within a half mile of transit and train stations throughout Connecticut.
Since the bill was introduced in January by state Rep. Brendan Sharkey (D-88), Rep. Joe Aresimowicz (D-30), Senator Martin M. Looney (D-11) and Sen. Bob Duff (D-25), it has moved largely under the radar.
The bill proposes creating a quasi-governmental state authority, governed by an 11-member board of directors, that would seek to “stimulate new investment, and economic development with designated transit districts.”
The proposed TCDA would “work with municipalities to assist in development and redevelopment efforts to stimulate the economy of the region.” TCDA would have the power to purchase property within a designated development district; to engage professionals to design and construct on the property; and to borrow and issue bonds to fund the authorized activities.
Under the provisions of HB 6851, the TCDA board of directors would include seven politically appointed members, four of those appointed by the governor. The board also would include the Secretary of the Office of Policy Management, and the commissioners of the departments of Transportation, Housing, and Economic and Community Development. In addition, the chief elected official of a municipality where projects are planned would serve as an ad hoc committee member.
Under the proposal, the governor would appoint the TCDA board chairperson. The chairperson then would appoint the managing executive director.
So far, reaction to HB 6851 has been mixed, and guarded.
Activists like Jim Cameron, the founder of the Commuter Action Group, have argued that the TCDA would “big-foot” the towns and cities. Indeed, some implications of a TCDA remain unclear. For instance, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities questioned early on whether property acquired by TCDA would become tax exempt, thereby removing it from the tax rolls. A recent review by the state Office of Fiscal Analysis, however, indicates that may not necessarily be the case.
HB 6851 is still winding its way through the legislature, where it was the subject of a March 6 public hearing in Hartford while still in the legislative Planning and Development Committee.
One speaker at the public hearing, Commissioner Catherine Smith of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said the proposed TCDA would work “with municipalities, regulatory organizations and state agencies to concentrate housing, parking, cultural and community development near transit stops to improve the quality of life and economies of cities and town.”
After the hearing, it was clear that not everyone was happy with the bill's original wording or all of its provisions.
“While Milford understands the purpose of HB 6851 is to 'stimulate new investment, and economic and transit-oriented development', the City of Milford had significant unease with the legislation as initially drafted,” said Milford Mayor Ben Blake.
“The city worked with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to address our concerns before the bill was voted out of committee, and important changes were approved.”
For example, Blake said the amended language now requires the “host” community and TCDA to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding to delineate the parameters of the development district.
“If a town doesn't want TCDA development projects within its boundaries, it needn't sign an agreement,” Blake said.
Amendments also have provided a vote for the local chief elected official for the municipality in which TCDA contemplates a development. Under the initial bill, Blake and other mayors like him — while ad hoc members of TCDA — would not have been voting members.
“Additional language also was inserted in the amendment to clarify that municipal zoning, subdivision or wetland regulations apply for TCDA developments on private or municipal land,” said Blake.
State Rep. Kim Rose (D-118) said she did not support the original bill, but is “more comfortable with it since eminent domain was removed,” noting that the amendments removed the TCDA's ability to condemn property it deemed suitable for transit district development. Rose also favors the increased input given to local officials since the bill was first introduced.
“The current language gives the power to the local authority, which in this case is our mayor,” Rose said. “I have confidence in Mayor Blake's ability to make the right decision for our residents. And I'm working very closely with several neighborhood groups and constituents that would be potentially affected by the bill. I will continue to do so.”
Rose said she continues “watching this bill very carefully for any language change.”
She is not alone.
State Rep. Charles J. Ferraro (D-117) said for him initially “the bill raised great concerns with regard to the loss of input or control of our municipalities as they became subservient to the edicts of the TCDA.
“However, since then, this bill has been improved, and substitute language has made the bill more friendly to municipal planning and zoning, and to land use boards. Despite these improvements, I, along with many of my colleagues, still have objections on the grounds that this bill is ultimately an over-reach of state government into an issue that would be better left up to the municipalities and the local market place.”
State Rep. Pam Staneski (D-119) shared her colleagues' concern about the initial bill, and their cautious optimism about amendments made thus far.
“As in most legislation, the devil is in the details — and this bill proposing the new TCDA is no exception,” Staneski said. “The state cannot forget our responsibility to be working on safety and efficiency of the rail lines as we consider forming this new authority.
“In New England, we have a variety of communities that are all somewhat different yet all possessing this terrific New England charm,” Staneski added. “At the end of the day, I believe it should be the communities, through the local elected officials, determining what gets developed in the community. And that includes the areas around our train stations.”