Letters to the editor: Fairfield Metro Center
Published 1:02 am, Friday, January 29, 2010
Last week Bob Stone wrote a letter to the editor chastising "the small group of concerned citizens" about their criticism regarding the new regional train station located less than a mile from our current station and on the Bridgeport border. I am sorry to report, Bob, but I am not a member of any group. I am just a Fairfield taxpayer that has been commuting by train for over 25 years. I just want to correct a few mistakes that you made for the record.
Yes we are getting 1,500 parking spots, while at the same time we will have lost between 200 to 300 parking spots on the south side of the current station. So in reality we are increasing parking by about 1,200. This is part of the agreement unfortunately. The five-year waiting list for a parking permit is one of the shortest waiting lists from New Haven to Greenwich. I called various towns about two years ago and all the surrounding towns have a much longer waiting list than we do. I would guess that when the third station build-out was announced we probably got a slew of new applicants. We also pay one of the highest fees for a parking permit pass.
On top of this, Fairfield residents used to pay half the price for a parking pass verses non-residents and now we pay the same as non-residents. Does that seem fair? Since I started commuting, nothing has changed at the Fairfield station. We still have a very narrow staircase -- that is fully exposed to the weather -- to get to either side of the station. State Sen. John McKinney calls this a regional train station, which is appropriate as the most cost-effective way to of dealt with complying with the American Disability Act or ADA would have been in to fix the current station. Other towns like Westport and Darien simply built an elevator to comply.
Instead the Sstate is building a 20,000-square-foot waiting area and turning us into a Stamford-type station. Since the town has the same population as we did in 1980, roughly 58,000 people, it is hard to call this a town station and I would agree with McKinney that what we are doing is creating a regional train station.
Bob, it seems we are doing the greater good opening a regional train station for other communities, but this new station will actually hurt most current Fairfield commuters. People like me have built their lives around the current stations and I am concerned that I will have to drive a few exits north to the new station to make sure I get a seat. Trains are packed and by the time the train I am on gets to Westport or Norwalk, there is usually standing room only. My worry is that when the new station opens, seats might be hard to get at our current stations. Remember, Metro North is not adding train car capacity.
So Bob, I can only assume you do not commute. The informal polling that I do when commuting is that most commuters have no idea what is going on. They are just too busy leaving early in the morning and trying to get home to their families at night. I can only hope in the future that commuters have some input regarding our train stations, as we have never been asked, instead of local leaders who really have no idea what commuters put up with on a daily basis.
In their previous round of letters, Brandt and Harrison had stated that the current three-party agreement guaranteed only $300,000 in state reimbursement to the town (from parking fees) for Fairfield's up-front investment in the train station and its parking area. This statement is false. In the agreement the provision for at least $300,000 of reimbursement (quoted in the Brandt/Harrison letter) explicitly applies "each year" over a 20-year period. $300,000 times 20 is $6 million of state reimbursement to the town, not $300,000. If you were to believe Brandt and Harrison's falsehood, you would not realize that the cost to the town for the train station project is actually less than $1 million, not $6 million or the $24 million that Fairfield's taxpayers would have had to pay under the original Republican version of this project, proposed by then-First Selectman John Metsopoulos.
Brandt and Harrison also falsely stated about a previous letter of mine that I apparently hadn't read the agreement because I hadn't stated that the town could threaten to abrogate the agreement with the developer. In fact, my previous letter explicitly stated that the town could abrogate the agreement, but that it would be foolish to do so, because it would let the developer off the hook for all of his obligations that Brandt and Harrison are so eager to get out of the developer, and could lead to a lawsuit by the developer against the town.
More recently, Brandt and Harrison stated that "our tax burdens" are increased by the recent state decision to allocate money to complete the road to the train station parking area so that it can be used. This statement is false. In fact, no local taxpayer money is involved. The $19 million is an allocation of state transportation money, and that money is likely to be repaid to the state out of its share of the coming parking revenues, expected to be up to $1 million a year. Moreover, the previous money spent for the bridge was all Federal transportation money being passed through by the state. The federal money was already allocated for good transportation projects like this which promise to get more cars off our clogged highways and side streets, and more people into mass transit. If Fairfield did not get this money, some other community or state would get it, and there is no difference to Fairfield's tax bills.
Also Brandt and Harrison claim that the short road that the state is building would provide the developer with the only access to his property, making it more valuable. False again. In fact, the developer has another route of access available to Black Rock Turnpike (though it would require additional work by the developer on the property). Moreover, the developer does not hold unrestricted title to the property he had hoped to use for commercial development; his bank has a lien, and since the previous delays have caused the time to run out on the developer's loans in the midst of a nationwide crisis in commercial real estate and credit, and the credit freeze has ruled out rolling over his loans, now it appears that the developer will at least have to renegotiate his stake in owning the land slated for commercial development, if not lose the land entirely.
Brandt and Harrison present as a new discovery the fact that the developer's original obligation to build the road was contingent, explicitly in the agreement, on receiving a grant from the state for the purpose. (The state's original tentative approval of the grant has expired due to all the delays in the project.) But when I was on the RTM when this agreement was approved years ago, the information was quite open and available to us that the infrastructure for the train station was state-funded and ultimately state-controlled work, despite all of the contributions to it that were envisioned from the developer.
Brandt and Harrison state that the developer may have simply made off with the money he borrowed for the project. In fact, it has been public information all along that the developer has used the money for buying the property in the first place, removing the structures on it, extensive design and marketing costs to plan the project and try to recruit office and commercial tenants, etc. In addition to the money borrowed, the developer appears to have invested upwards of $10 million of the firm's own equity in it. Now, the developer still owes the loan amount to the bank, but the implosion of the commercial real estate market has denied the developer the promise of commercial income to repay the loan, as well as the chance to roll over the credit. Brandt's and Harrison's contentions that some of the new state money must be going to reduce the developer's debt are simply false, and have been denied by state officials.
Brandt's and Harrison's statements that the developer was not "hard hit" by the commercial real estate collapse are ludicrous. The developer has risked a lot of money, time and effort on this project, and largely because of the unforeseen economic and financial downturn, he now stands to lose it all.
Brandt's and Harrison's overall cost estimates for the project are ridiculously inflated and imaginary. And to my knowledge, every legal prerogative of the town has been pursued to the maximum of the law. Brandt's and Harrison's gratuitous judgments, sprinkled through their letters, that this was "poorly done" or that was "illegal," and so on, have no foundation other than the falsehoods that pervade their letters.
Finally, the recent letter from the "Concerned Citizens" (with Brandt and Harrison among the nine) repeats the falsehood that there is "toxic waste" on the site. Again, toxic wastes were removed decades ago, and now the soil only has old petroleum residues, well short of the state DEP toxic waste classification. The plan's approach of capping the site and directing runoff into drainage pipes is fully DEP-approved.
Again, the basic design of this project, and the legal prerogatives and recourses that it afforded the town under the agreement with the state and the developer, was put together under a Republican first selectman, John Metsopoulos, when his town attorney was Jim Baldwin and his staff manager was Michael Sohn. (Their plan cost $200,000 in legal work to prepare, which was not revealed until the plan was complete and the legal bills had already been paid.) The recent announcement of the state commitment of funds was made by Republican governor Jodi Rell and Republican state senator John McKinney, and first selectman Flatto was neither invited nor mentioned.
Please, Brandt and Harrison, have respect for basic standards of accuracy.
Alan G. Smith
More evasive misleading
Town Attorney Richard Saxl has a responsibility not to mislead our residents in his public statements. His opinion letter in Wednesday's Citizen, titled "Metro Center Reality," has been derelict in this responsibility. I therefore feel compelled to respond to this misleading use of half-truths and omissions to avoid full disclosure and transparency by the Flatto administration.
Saxl excuses Blackrock Realty (BRR)/Developer Kurt Wittek's failure to perform its commitments on the public project because of the "economic environment." However, nowhere have we seen any evidence that Blackrock/Wittek has been so affected. On the other hand, consider the following facts:
"¢ Wittek has begun a project in California that even exceeds the scope of the one BRR/Wittek planned for Fairfield;
"¢ In 2006, Blackrock/Wittek increased its mortgage to Banknorth by $10 million and in the same year it received $3.75 million from the town of Fairfield for its purchase of the parking land yet, since that time, BRR has done next to nothing to perform its commitments on the public project;
"¢ Banknorth's foreclosure action against BRR has requested to see BRR's financial records but BRR's attorneys are vigorously contesting that request which implies there may be something for BRR to hide.
Despite these facts, Saxl asks us to simply accept the "fact" that the reason for BRR's failure to perform is the economy. But there is more to it than that.
Saxl indulges in self-praise by extolling only the benefits of the revised Agreement he participated in preparing. However, nowhere does he address his failure to provide a contractual provision that would have enabled the Town and State to hold BRR liable for non-performance of its commitments, and nowhere does Saxl explain why instead he approved the escape clause that freed BRR from any legal liability for failure to perform.
As town attorney, Saxl is assumed to be an experienced lawyer so he should know that it is a first-year law school lesson that you have someone sign a contract in order to hold them liable for non-performance of their contractual promises. The agreement he prepared repeatedly states that the developer "shall" perform its commitments. The word "shall" is used to connote a mandatory commitment but Saxl tells us, "No amount of words in a contract could make that [ i.e., BRR's performance] happen" because of the current economy.
What Saxl doesn't admit is that the right words in a binding provision could have provided the means for the state and town to have recourse against BRR. As long as BRR would have been liable for non-performance, there would be the potential to recoup our taxpayer losses. But Saxl failed to use those words on the agreement so there is no recourse.
Saxl tries to justify his failure in this regard by claiming that just about everyone in town hall approved the agreement. Does he really expect us to believe they understood the legal implications of the escape clause he crafted? If they had understood, they would have insisted Saxl provide for the contingencies that would occur if BRR escaped from its commitments, e.g., Who would do the work BRR was supposed to do? What would it cost? Who would pay for it? None of those questions were ever raised which leads to the conclusion that the people Saxl referred to must have relied on him to protect the town from, or at least prepare it for, such a contingency. That would be an elementary obligation for any town attorney.
Saxl tells us that "Ultimately, the town will spend little" on the project. That is a myth that fails to acknowledge that the town is no more than its taxpaying citizens and they are the same citizens who pay a myriad of taxes to the state; income tax; sales tax; DMV fees, etc. So, make no mistake about it, the $19.4 million of taxpayer money the State has acknowledged it must now spend only because of BRR's failure to perform is our loss.
Saxl refers to the Ethics Commission's dismissal of the ethics complaint brought by the Concerned Citizens because of Flatto's removal of the Conservation Department from oversight of consultants on the Metro project, and the dismissal of their appeal by the court to imply the complaint had no merit. However, he fails to tell the public that the court never heard the case on its merits but only dismissed the appeal from that decision because it had no jurisdiction due to the absence of a statute providing the same.
Saxl claims that the "`concerned' critics ... even personally lambasted the governor and attorney general at the bond commission hearing." To my knowledge, Saxl was not at the hearing and had no first hand knowledge of what took place.
Webster defines " to lambaste" as "to beat soundly; thrash; to scold or denounce severely."
Since I was the only concerned "critic" at the hearing and at no time did I do anything other than engage in polite conversation with these officials after the hearing was over Saxl's remarks are clearly not true. I simply asked for explanations that seemed necessary and the DOT and Attorney General acknowledged my right for answers by DOT's providing them to me with the letter explaining why the DOT was forced to ask for the bond issue. So, Saxl's accusations that these were "lambasted" is blatantly untrue and he should apologize for it as any gentleman would.
Saxl claims the "concerned critics are against completion of the train station project, but he can point to nothing to support that claim. The concerned citizens have not been against its completion. What they have been against is the manner in which the Flatto administration has handled its part in the project -- failing to hold BRR accountable -- unjustly removing the Conservation Department from oversight of the project -- etc., etc.
Saxl falsely claims that at the RTM meeting to approve the agreement I "fought the train station concept." The minutes of that meeting make it clear that I did not speak against the project but only raised concerns over substantive issues such as the vagueness of some contract provisions and the choice of the developer, BRR/Wittek, as a partner in the project. Now, ten years later, it appears those concerns were well founded.
It should be clear that Saxl's entire opinion letter is riddled with misleading statements that utterly fail to address his failure to provide a contractual provision that could have held BRR liable for its failure to perform. The result of that failure will inevitably allow BRR or any subsequent buyer of BRR's property to be enormously enriched at the expense of us taxpayers and no amount of misleading statements by the Flatto administration can evade responsibility for that reality.