GROTON — The Office of Planning and Development Services has distributed a package of information on costs of development that needs more background than was provided to the land-use commissions that received it.

Matthew Davis, manager of planning services, prepared the package for meetings of the Planning Commission May 25 and the Zoning Commission June 2, 2010.

He said May 25 that the package was a “very good study…done by Rutgers University, a very reputable source, and I think it’s very interesting because it dispels some of the myths that people seem to have about housing and some of these kind of generic, broadbrush kind of statements that they’ll make, and it’s important when it comes to the [planned] regulation amendments that you know to keep this information in mind because this is Rutgers. This isn’t Matt Davis or Mike Murphy or anybody else.”

In an accompanying memo, Mr. Davis said the data supported his point, made in a May 5, 2010, Zoning meeting, that the “aggregate ‘costs’ [of development] over time that can be attributed to various types of housing… vary greatly (in terms of public education).” Mr. Davis had complained at the May 5 meeting that–in the words of the meeting minutes–“a simplistic fixation on unit yield was a major impediment to moving forward” with Groton’s land-use regulation rewrite.

In fact, the package contained much more than a 2006 study by the Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research. That study analyzed the Year 2000 Census and came up with figures showing numbers of occupants, including school age children, of Connecticut houses and apartments broken down by type, size and cost. Rutgers says the Connecticut study was one of a national series done for the now-defunct Fannie Mae Foundation.

The study for Connecticut, as it appears on the internet and as it was sent to GOSA by Rutgers, includes no conclusions by the three Rutgers authors. The version handed out to Groton land-use agencies had a sheet under the title page that resembles an executive summary. The origin of the summary, which is marked by numerous writing errors, could not be determined. Mr. Davis declined June 14, 2010, to comment on any aspects of the package.

The top two sheets in the stapled sheaf containing the Rutgers study comprised a polemical paper by Donald J. Poland, called “Sprawl Myths: Do Education Costs and Property Taxes Cause Sprawl? No!” Mr. Poland, a Hartford planning consultant, is executive director of a group called the Connecticut Partnership for Balanced Growth, and the paper was issued in the name of the Partnership.

President of the Partnership, according its website, is R. Michael Goman, principal of ICREI, LLC, an international commercial real estate investment company. Prior to his association with ICREI, Mr. Goman was president of Konover Development Corp. Around early 2006, Konover Development Corp. applied to build a major retail development in the vicinity of the Groton Utilities drinking water reservoir. The main anchor for the development, not named in the application, turned out to be  Wal-Mart, which planned to build a super center. Konover said in January 2009 that it was dropping the project, which had met stiff local opposition.

 Among directors of the Partnership is William H. Ethier, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Connecticut, Inc. Mr. Poland, who did not participate in the Rutgers study, is author of several essays appearing on the Partnership’s website that attempt to debunk allegedly mythical fears about “sprawl.”

In the “Sprawl Myths” essay handed out to Groton land-use commissioners, Mr. Poland criticizes a Canton, CT, group called “Canton Advocates for Responsible Expansion (CARE).” He accused CARE of misusing data in building an argument that preservation of open space costs less in net terms than allowing it to be developed. The essay is not dated, though it cites 2005 and 2006 economic data. A check with the Canton town clerk turned up information that on April 9, 2008, Canton residents voted at a special town meeting to acquire a 140-acre tract for open space, rather than allowing it to be developed. The town’s economic assumptions handed out at the special meeting differed from Mr. Poland’s.

(Mr. Davis clarified in another context at the Zoning Commission meeting June 2 that in passing out the materials he did not have in mind “the obvious differences in fiscal impact of residential development versus open space,” in the words of the official meeting minutes.) 

Also part of the package given to Groton land-use agencies was Mr. Poland’s March 4, 2010, study entitled “Planning Report: Fiscal Impacts of Residential Development and School Age Children, Town of South Windsor, Connecticut.” Though the report does not mention it specifically, the fiscal impact work was commissioned and paid for by backers of a proposed South Windsor residential development called Nutmeg Commons and Nutmeg Village. Marcia Banach, planning director of South Windsor, said she had suggested a study on school-age children to the developer ahead of the hearings on the developer’s application for the 202-unit multi-family project. She said she did not specifically recommend Mr. Poland to conduct the study.

“My suggestion was that the applicant determine how many school children are actually in the South Windsor school system from multi-family developments, knowing that the information could be provided by the school bus company that serves South Windsor,” she said in an emailed response to a question.

Without naming his client, Mr. Poland wrote that the proposed residential development, which would have required a zone change to residential from industrial, would be tax-positive. Ms. Banach noted that the proposal was turned down by the Planning and Zoning Commission May 11, 2010, because industrial users opposed it. However, she said Mr. Poland’s study was very useful. The study included Rutgers data.

The 14-page copy of the South Windsor study that was handed out in Groton was missing Pages 15 and 16 of the original.

Page 16 contains a biography of the author, and Page 15 offers the following disclaimer: “The information and opinions provided in this report are specific to the proposed application and should not be interpreted to apply to any other applications, locations, and/or projects.”

In summary: the information provided by the OPDS to the land-use commissions should be looked at critically. It was incorrectly billed as all academic research.

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Note: An earlier, shorter version of this article above was presented to the Town of Groton Planning Commission June 8, 2010, as a communication from the public.