The town is on pace, once again, to exceed its budget on legal fees.
Documents show that in the last fiscal year, New Canaan exceeded its $300,000 budget by 32% ($395,947.42).
In the current fiscal year, the town is on pace to spend about $383,989, based on billing from the town attorney’s firm as of the most recent legal invoice approved by the Board of Selectmen.
Selectman Kathleen Corbet during the Board’s Feb. 19 meeting asked how the town proceeds with covering such non-budgeted costs.
“We have reached our budgeted amount and we’ve got four more months of the fiscal year,” Corbet said at the meeting, held in Town Hall and via videoconference. “What do we do in terms of the process when we know we’re going to exceed something?” (In fact, the bill that Corbet referred to showed legal costs through January only, so the town has five more months to go—not four—in the fiscal year from the amount shown in the invoice.)
First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said the town can tap its $300,000 “contingency.”
“We rarely use it,” he said.
After the retainer that New Canaan pays to Berchem Moses PC ($8,500 per month), the highest single legal costs listed by the town are tied to affordable housing. Specifically, the town in the current fiscal year, through January, has spent: $31,067 on an 8-30g affordable housing application for Weed and Elm Streets; $24,968.50 on an application for a “moratorium,” which the state denied (a decision the town is appealing); and $20,492 on a developer’s administrative appeal of the Board of Finance/Water Pollution Control Authority’s decision last year regarding the proposed development at Weed and Elm.
In talking about the town’s legal spending on affordable housing matters in the past, Moynihan has referred to large-scale developments as an attempt to “urbanize” New Canaan. The town currently has three applications for 8-30g affordable housing projects before it.
Asked for background on the applications, the developer submitting them, Arnold Karp, told NewCanaanite.com in an interview that he had approached Moynihan and the town several times with more modest proposals at the properties in question, but those were dismissed out of hand.
For example, Karp said the senior housing development proposed for Weed and Elm Streets in 2018 would have included about 80 units and in a much smaller area than the 102-unit development now planned for the lot because senior residents “do not need larger spaces and the parking need is much less.”
It would have been “like a big Maples Inn as a senior residence” and one-and-a-half stories shorter than what is now on the table, Karp said.
(Moynihan, who lives across the street from the property at 751 Weed St., had pushed for years to build a new police station in town while converting the existing police headquarters into senior housing, a proposal that would have served the senior housing need one mile away from the first selectman’s home rather than one minute.)
Though Moynihan “continues to act like he was surprised and amazed” when the 8-30g application at Weed and Elm (among others) was filed with the town last year, he had been told numerous times would come and simply “did not believe” that Karp would file it, Karp said.
“Economically, what he didn’t count on is that I believe everybody should have housing in a town of our size, and he continues to refer it as ‘low income’ housing—it’s affordable housing,” Karp said. “Giving people who work for a living, people who have real jobs a decent place to live is one of my goals in life. But Kevin continues, and if you go back to his discussions when we first put in Weed and Elm, he has said things like ‘I never thought he [Karp] would.’ He’s on record numerous times saying that I’m misguided, time and again. This was not a surprise to him. We’d been telling him that was a prime place initially for senior housing, even before Waveny [LifeCare Network] applied at Oenoke [Ridge], that we had a better place. It’s closer to town and we already own the property. Everybody now plays ‘Geez, we didn’t know.’ They’re just not being truthful or accurate with the public.”
Similarly, Karp said that when Vine Cottage went out for bid, he had proposed a modest townhouse development to be called “Colonial Corner,” which would have left in place both Vine Cottage and the former Red Cross building, which he already owns, while doing a land swap with the town so that the latter could obtain more parking near Town Hall. (Karp shared with the New Canaanite a 2021 purchase proposal of $600,000 for Vine Cottage, which he said the town rejected.) “Colonial Corner” would have included Vine Cottage and the Red Cross building with two Victorian-style structures behind them.
Last year, a 20-unit residential complex was proposed for the Red Cross building, with the structure itself to be moved toward the street.
Karp also said he had proposed selling the town a parcel he owns on Hill Street, below Brushy Ridge, for its own affordable housing development. Instead of having at least 30% of units set aside for affordable housing, as private developers are required to have under the 8-30g law, the town could have created 100% affordable housing there, Karp said, achieving a higher number of units in a smaller development.
But the town officials he spoke to, including members of the Housing Authority and Town Council, “didn’t think we should do anything,” Karp said.
“For all these years we did little to nothing,” Karp said.
Last year, Karp filed an 8-30g application for a 93-unit development on Hill Street.
Asked about Karp’s assertions, Moynihan told NewCanaanite.com in a Feb. 14 email, “I don’t know that Arnold ever ‘proposed’ senior housing at Weed & Elm; he ‘discussed’ possible congregate dining senior housing at that location with me on more than one occasion and I believe he may have discussed same with Waveny LifeCare Network. Colonial Court was proposed for Red Cross property more than once I believe, once in response to an RFP by Town. Speak with Tiger about this.I never knew anything about Arnold’s plans for Hill Street location. He never discussed anything with me.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what is the difference between senior housing and “congregate dining senior housing.”
Asked whether he was directly involved in discussions with the developer of the “Colonial Corner” plans, Mann said no.
During the selectmen’s Feb. 19 discussion about legal fees, town CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz said the town hasn’t touched its $300,000 contingency yet.
“We’ve had two issues we needed to cover, but we had other funds,” she said. “So we had the electrical one which is coming from the special projects which we had reimbursements from Aquarion from years past. So that is covering that one. And we had 220 Elm which is the monthly maintenance that we have on that. That’s getting covered by the bonding interest that will hit in this year. So we’re not touching to cover either of those items. So the two items that will be coming in front will be the legal fees and the permitting program, Opengov, that we are looking at to have the permitting process between health, building. to look at health building and that will come out of contingency.”
It wasn’t immediately clear why the town didn’t plan in advance for monthly maintenance fees at 220 Elm St., which are classified as condominiums as well as commercial space (for the Board of Education’s future headquarters).
Moynihan said, “Actually, the reality is by the time June comes around, we may not even use the contingency because we always under-spend our budget and we may go to another source of funds.”
Kelly-Lenz said that she has been “going through all personnel items to see where we have savings with all the changes that we’ve had, with retirements and new people coming on.”
Given the town is under siege by an out of town developer seeking to weaponize an affordable housing statute to build inappropriate high density 5 story buildings in in completely appropriate locations that are currently zoned for single family, the town needs to meaningfully expand its legal budget, whereas today it stands at only 0.15% of total expenditures.