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Tough Choice For Hartford: Construction In Suburbs?

City partnering with Farmington for big development

Hartford Courant Editorial

December 07, 2012

The suburban sprawl that characterized the decades after World War II eviscerated Hartford and other cities, drawing businesses and middle-class residents to the suburbs.

Curiously, Hartford now is in the act of abetting sprawl, despite its painful experience.

The city owns an 86-acre parcel of wooded land on Fienemann Road in Farmington southeast of I-84 near the New Britain line. Officials from Hartford and Farmington have agreed to work together to develop the site into a large office complex, possibly including a hotel.

The municipalities have assembled a seven-member selection committee, four from Hartford and three from Farmington. The committee is choosing a real estate broker, who in turn will help select a developer, The Courant has reported.

The developer would get a long-term lease. The municipalities would share the revenue, with part going to Farmington for property taxes and a portion going into the Hartford Parks Trust Fund, a fund created in the 1980s with the proceeds from another land sale that helps pay for park beautification and enhancement.

The 86-acre parcel is close to the highway and near the burgeoning UConn Health Center complex, so would appear to have strong development potential. City officials, always strapped for funds, have considered selling it several times since the 1980s.

But while it looks like a windfall, there are reasons to think twice.

Develop In Town, Not Suburbs

The immediate concern is water quality. The land is part of a much larger grant of former water company land made to the city in 1929. The parcel is across Fienemann Road from Batterson Park, which includes a 140-acre pond, one of the largest ponds in the area. Two-thirds of the water that flows into the pond comes through the 86-acre parcel. The pond, which has a city swimming area, already is challenged by runoff from nearby development.

But even if that problem could be solved, there's a broader question of whether there ought to be any more greenfield development such as this. Most climate scientists agree that climate change is being driven, at least in large part, by the burning of fossil fuels. In Connecticut and across the country, 35 to 40 percent of fossil fuel consumption comes from transportation, mostly from driving. Sprawl adds to driving.

Shouldn't future development be in places such as town centers that don't increase driving? Open space is dwindling.

Hartford Damned Either Way

However, it might be unfair to ask Hartford to take a hit for smart growth when no one else is. Sprawl continues unabated. There are 1,000 housing units planned for downtown Hartford, but 10 times that many planned in the suburbs.

As long as land use is governed locally and driven by the need for more property tax revenue, we will have chaotic sprawl development.

Hartford is in a damned-if-you-do-or-don't position. With a high downtown office vacancy rate, it seems bizarre that the city would support new office construction in the suburbs. Yet the city struggles to balance its budget every year; its business taxes are among the highest in the state. The city's parks are vital quality-of-life assets. The parks trust fund is a godsend; more money for parks is clearly a good thing.

So it's a tough call. But if the city does go forward with the project, it ought to drive a harder bargain.

First, it is not clear why a lease is preferable to a sale. Second, the city must insist on a fully green development that will do no harm to the pond, along with good bus service and jobs for city residents.

Finally, it should require a plan, first proposed by parks advocate Jill Barrett, that Hartford, Farmington and New Britain form a parks authority and enhance the recreational use of Batterson Park. That would build support for protecting the rest of the wooded land.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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