As a candidate for first selectman, Lynne Vanderslice held a forum Tuesday afternoon (Sept. 29) with Wilton realtors, with the intent to find out what that constituency views as important issues facing the town. She opened the afternoon session by telling them she was interested in hearing concerns they have as a group that interacts with residents who need to sell and with people who consider moving to town.

She got an earful from the candid group about what they said they hear most often from their buying and selling clients alike.

Editor’s note: In reporting about what was discussed at the meeting, has opted to leave the realtor’s names as anonymous. While we were invited to attend by Vanderslice, she’s the candidate and the one in the ‘public domain;’  as such she’s the one we’re covering. Because it wasn’t a press event where the attendees were expecting to be the subject, we’re going to make sure the focus stays on what was said and how the candidate responded, rather than emphasize who it was making the point. We’ll make sure to clarify when there wasn’t general consensus in the room amongst the realtors in attendance too.

First and Foremost:  High taxes, and not much to show for it

The realtors generally agreed that the question of taxes, and how high taxes are in Wilton are compared to surrounding towns, was one of the most pressing concerns⎯if not the most pressing concern of all.

One realtor volunteered a “historical perspective,” stating she’d been working in the Wilton real estate market for about 30 years.  “When I first started, I actually had a difficult time explaining to buyers that our taxes were low but our school system really is great. We were lower than anyone else. It’s really hard because our taxes are high now⎯”

“And we haven’t added services to justify that,” another agreed.

“There’s no garbage haul. It’s all a-la carte. It’s hard to explain. We don’t have a beach, thankfully our downtown is much more cohesive, and the new sidewalks are a step in the right direction,” the first continued.

Another realtor chimed in:  “We understand, the majority of the budget is going to the schools. But the reality is people are looking for additional services:  golf course⎯we don’t have; beach front⎯we don’t have; ice rink⎯we don’t have; community center⎯we don’t have; and we don’t have a lot of extra room left. Everything is boxed in: it’s either state owned or can’t be used because it’s school owned and the fields are restricted. People are looking for amenities that we just don’t have. People ask, ‘Where’s all the money going?’ Why are we having such a hard time competing against Westport, New Canaan, Ridgefield, where’s the money going? Obviously it’s going to overhead, labor and benefits. People are trying to understand why we’re at such a disadvantage. Rt. 7 is just one big logjam. There are restrictions on what can be done. Why is South Wilton struggling so much? It’s just plain ugly. Landlords are complaining, people complain, and there’s nothing being done to expedite the cleanup of some of the buildings so when you drive in from Norwalk it doesn’t look like a disaster. It’s a matter of taking a look at the whole picture. There’s a slew of things that can improve the appearance of the whole town, not just the downtown.”

Another realtor said the issue is having a direct impact. “I know I’ve lost clients to New Canaan and Darien and Westport because of taxes and their town centers. You can’t change the location of Wilton. People looking at houses in $2, 3, 4 million range have Lots and , lots of choices, and their taxes are much lower in the other towns than they are here, at a $2.5 million price point, and they don’t get nearly the amenities here–sewers, town pool, ice rink…not to mention the water. We’ve lost significant people to those towns. I’m constantly having to talk about taxes. Taxes were so much lower elsewhere. That’s going on every day.”

Vanderslice acknowledged that, especially with the demographic changes of people who are looking to move into Wilton.

“When you look at the demographics and the change in the mentality of the younger people, with certainly smaller families than when I came here, looking for more urban, less suburban, lower maintenance house. That’s what they say, that’s what I read.”

Demographics aren’t the only thing changing–other towns in Wilton have changed, too. One realtor pointed out that other towns have ‘caught up’ to what was once Wilton’s feature that set us apart:  quality of our schools.

“Schools are very good in Darien, New Canaan, and Ridgefield. Wilton used to be the pinnacle, 20 years ago, Wilton was it. Now not so much. These other towns are doing well,” she said.

Another realtor agreed:  “It was a combination of things:  properties were affordable, taxes were affordable and the schools were very good. Now our taxes are much higher and the school system has competition.”

Words Can Hurt, Especially Online

One realtor addressed the effect that town controversy has, saying, “Perception, there’s all this noise, from four or five people from Sensible Wilton. Can we just please get it over with, because they’re killing us. It may not be reality but the perception is we’re falling apart, and it’s not real. But it’s that perception and social media and the ability to create so much noise, that makes it seem we don’t have our act together.” He then mentioned that after Miller-Driscoll, there are other improvements that have to be made, noting the police station needs significant overhaul.

Vanderslice responded, “We’ve got that and there’s other needs. We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to meet those needs in the most cost-effective manner. We own a lot of property and facilities in town. There’s different thinking we need to do, to respond to the changes in what people are looking for, who the future residents of the town are, and I absolutely agree, we’ve got to get this Sensible Wilton situation settled and get it behind us.”

There was also some discussion about negative comments made by Wilton residents online, on social media and other forums. The realtors expressed how such online noise can really hurt the town’s reputation among people who are considering living here.

“There’s a lot of Wilton bashing on Wilton 412 on Facebook. Every time a business goes out of business, someone asks, ‘What’s the Chamber doing?’ We have buyers who are going on these sites and Facebook pages, and if they’re hearing all the griping going on about the town, they don’t want to live here,” said one.

Wilton’s Identity Crisis

There were several comments about Wilton’s perceived lack of identity.

  • “People have to find Wilton Center. We have a sign at River Rd. and at Rte. 33, but there are no signs [on Rte. 7] pointing in to Wilton Center. People say, “Where is Wilton Center? I didn’t even know it existed. Where is it?”
  • “I spoke with the husband of the woman who did the yellow sculpture piece on River Rd. He said, ‘I’ve lived here for 30 years in Weston, and I never knew this section of Wilton existed.’ I was flabbergasted! He said, ‘You should advertise it more.’”
  • “Wilton has an identity crisis. It certainly doesn’t help when people are bashing their own town, especially when’t it’s out in the open for people to view. I think we could well to do a PR campaign. Some of the benefits of who we are, a mission statement, let’s figure out who are we and how are we meeting that mission statement.”
  • “A lot of my buyers compare Wilton to Ridgefield, and there are so many events they have as a community for them to get together, in their parks, musical day, this and that. Wilton is better–it’s closer to the city, we have more regular trains, but we don’t have any, other than Halloween, and a few events, we don’t have functions or events where we can get the community together. People love to get together and get to know each other.”
  • “Is marketing or public relations for the town a possibility, because we do have a lot of assets, and there are a lot of positive elements to the town. Is it possible to do some PR campaign?” one person asked. “Can we get testimonials from people who have businesses here?”

There was discussion about how expensive such a campaign would be to create.

Vanderslice said she is taking a “different approach.”

“I think it can be done and we don’t have to go to the outside to do it. Two weeks ago I met with someone who’s in town, 40 years in marketing, and he said the same thing:  we need branding. He said, ‘We have this river and you don’t see it. Remember A River Runs Through it; I want to work on it. We’ve got plenty of professionals, we’ll form a new committee.’ He was filled with so many great ideas. I think there’s the ability to do it.”

She also added that she thought the town website needed an overhaul. “As a Bd. of Finance member, I go on the town site all the time, and I still get confused. It’s a difficult site to navigate. We need to put resources behind making sure it’s updated and that’s the starting point. If we had one central place, that’s clean and easy and filled with a lot of links, that will help.”

Economic Development

One realtor said:  “I’m interested to learn what town is doing to lure big corporations to offset the tax? We’ve had a lot of vacant buildings for a long time, and we have a lot to offer. Do we have corporate callers trying to get corporations in and put Wilton that much more on the map?”

Vanderslice explained that in 2012 the Economic Development Corporation was set up by the Bd. of Selectmen, and that the current first selectman Bill Brennan has met with a couple of the CEOs of some Wilton businesses. “I met with the principal of Marcus Partners, the largest property owners in Wilton. They own 40, 50, 60, 64, 187 Danbury Rd. and are the management for the CommonFund bldg. I talked to him about what are the things we can do, what I can do as a potential first selectman and what the town can do to help.”

She continued:  “It is important to get out and talk to people, and understand what the businesses need. As first selectman, I’ll have to be talking to those people. Planning & zoning has their responsibilities, and I’d need to be communicating with them to make sure they understand what the needs are. We all want the right regulations and for them to follow the regulations but, sometimes regulations have to change to keep up with the times.”

One realtor responded:  “Part of the issue is, ‘Why is it taking so long to get through P&Z? Every time [someone has to go in front of the commission] you have to bring an attorney, and it costs money. You have to fast track these people. They have businesses, if there’s something that can be done to get them in to their businesses–schedule an extra meeting? The people who volunteer on the commission, that’s all well and good, but you need these businesses to stay in town or they’re going to leave. The town needs the reputation that we will do everything we possibly can to keep you in this town. That’s a major priority. If there are issues with the regulations, work around them, get it done. If the state is not going to be pro-business, make the town pro-business.”

They also discussed making access to Wilton Center a focus, and using what we have more wisely. Specifically, they talked about Schenk’s Island, an open space right in the center of town.

One realtor said:  “One of the issues is connecting Rte. 7 to Wilton Center. There is a connection at Old Highway to go right across the railroad tracks. You have to deal with the DOT, but to connect all those working people to downtown⎯the key is, how do you do that? To try to connect all that Rte. 7, all those potential buildings, to get them into town, and yes, walk along the river, into Schenk’s Island, to walk along the island and make it more useable. That’s a perfect spot, to bring people in. They want to keep it wild? Guess what–people want to use it and they want all these amenities–we’ve got one right there.

Vanderslice agreed.  “It’s really a balancing, it’s a big space and it could be multi-use. We’ve started the process with the Norwalk River Valley Trail, it’s going to go through Wilton Center, so let’s look at doing more to create that space. It’s important to have that space right in the downtown.

One realtor expressed a doubt that the landowners in Wilton Center would collaborate on any kind of project, such as a Wilton Center river walk. “The problem is you don’t have the right-of-ways behind those buildings. A lot of the owners, they are the family heirs of the businesses. They are not putting money into those properties, so it’s very complicated; you have to have the great ideas and the vision, but when you start to do it, it’s a work in progress and there are complicating factors involved with it.. When you start to uncover what you have to do, and state and right of ways, and people’s ownership, you have a lot to battle.”

Vanderslice seemed to think it was more possible. “We need the vision, we need it out there, and we need to work together as a community to get it done. It’s not going to be done overnight, but there are some pieces we can start to do now, we can make it more visible.”

Later on, one realtor said, “Figure out what can we do immediately. We don’t have 10 years to fix the problem. What can we do as a community right now that highlights the things that are good about Wilton that we don’t have to change and start communicating that a lot. Right now we’re in a really bad funk, it’s like menopause for a town. [Lots of laughter] Maybe there’s another way.”

Open Space Land Use

The attendees also debated the amount of open space in Wilton–and the merits of continuing to use taxpayer-supported town money on open space.

One realtor started it off:  “We spend so much on open property. How many people actually use it? They’re even afraid to use it because of Lyme disease. It’s all changing so how are we going to change with it? We don’t need another 30 acres off in one section of town if nobody’s going to use it. Yeah, it’s great to have open space, they want to see it, they want to use it. So spend money on the things–if you have to redo Merwin Meadows, redo it. Do what you have to do to upgrade it.”

Another realtor defended the practice. “The reason I came from Darien [two years ago] is because of all the open space. Wilton looks very different than Darien. Wilton looks different and acquiring that open space is very important.”

The first realtor responded: “I’m not criticizing why they did it, but the question is where is the focus going to be over the next 10 years? Are we going to spend money on another vista? Look at Chestnut Hill. The idea was to keep that open section on Chestnut Hill. That’s all well and good, but he’s got four trucks parked at the edge of the property. It’s a great vista but we paid $1 million or whatever we gave him, but the reality is it’s an open lot. We paid dearly for it. All those next investments we’re going to make as a town, I’m not sure we really need more open land; what we need are some of the amenities to address what some younger families are looking for.”

“But that’s what Wilton was. That’s why people want to come to Wilton. They want to see open land. That’s what we love about Wilton, having beautiful, pastoral space,” another countered.

Not everyone agreed. “That ship has sailed, that’s what we were 20 years ago, but now we’ve got the Stop & Shop center, the movie theater. All of which are good amenities that help people live in the town instead of going outside of the town. Who are we? Are we this great big open space, rural [village]?  No, that’s Weston or Redding. Are we the happening, hot town with all the great new restaurants? No that’s Greenwich or Westport. Who are we? Once we figure out who we are, then we move and start talking and planning like that.”

Blighted Properties, Eyesore Lots and Empty Storefronts

The realtors told Vanderslice that another issue of concern for them are several private lots in town that are significantly blighted properties, and they questioned why the town can’t be more aggressive about getting property owners to repair and clean up their land.

As they talked about it, they discussed both residential instances of blight as well as commercial. For the latter, they referred to some of the buildings on the lower Rte. 7 corridor, just as drivers enter Wilton. “It is a blight that affects the retail in the entire town. You’ve got this one strip–really just one or two buildings–that need to be imploded. And what are we doing to try to get more businesses moved in to where Outback Steakhouse is?”

Another realtor agreed:  “Or the Gap? That whole row has empty stores.”

Vanderslice acknowledged the need to talk with the landlord at 21 River Rd. and 5 River Rd., where Stop & Shop and Starbucks and Wilton Hardware are. “They’re letting the Gap space sit, so you have to think that Kimco must have a plan…I just don’t know what that is.. You’ve got to find a way to get in there, it’s go meet with Kimco. You’ve got to meet with them.We have to get in there. Kimco is a very, very tough group, but we’ve got to get in there and start talking to them.”