Our town has a long and wonderful history of being “the place to live” in the New Haven area. Quiet neighborhoods, great schools, easy commute to work in New Haven, etc. My guess is many of you reading this can pick one or more of these as the reasons you, or your family, moved here. It was, and still is in many ways, a good choice. But things have changed and we need to face facts.
We do not have a downtown that can generate the kind of tax revenue to ease the burden on our residents. No Boston Post Road, no concentrated blocks of retail stores, no large commercial real estate complex. That’s not a shot at Woodbridge, it’s the reality. And many of us like it that way. No argument. But with that comes the other side of the coin, no substantial non-residential revenue source, leaving the lion’s share of our bills to be paid with our property taxes.
For multiple reasons, efforts to generate the kind of revenue that could be impactful to our mill rate (read: taxes) are not in the cards. The development of substantial multi-unit housing and retail at the corner of Bradley Road and Litchfield Turnpike is a heavy lift due to the limited roadways in the area. The Route 69 exchange on the Merritt Parkway, though slightly improved of late, is still the most painful part of a commute going north on Route 15 from Woodbridge. And neighborhood concerns about the increased traffic a new development would bring add to the resistance.
The handling of the town’s arguably greatest asset, the golf course, has been mishandled since the purchase. Could selling the property for housing be the cash generator we need to bring our own taxes down? Not unless we abandon the zoning that helps make Woodbridge Woodbridge. Our town leaders need to face the fact that protecting our zoning is a higher priority for the majority than developing the golf course, even part of it, for a cash infusion and potential property tax revenue down the line.
The potential for downtown is limited due to traffic, parking and available retail space. Efforts to spruce it up with signage really don’t generate revenue. And our Economic Development Commission routinely nibbles around the edges, but its hands are tied when it comes to serious options for solid economic development. All laudable efforts, but the yield is not impactful.
As a Town, we need to recognize our limitations and work within them. Our priorities are education, open space, and I would argue now number three is our tax burden. There are few properties left to build new homes that expand our Grand List. In fact, our Grand List shrank last time we looked, driving up our mill rate. And for the reasons stated above, no consequential revenue stream is coming anytime soon. So, an we please focus on what we can control? Continue to invest in our school system, of course, knowing those costs will continue to rise. Protect our open space, the cornerstone of the character of Woodbridge. But the time will come when sacrifices will have to made, either in the form of cutting services or pricing people out of their homes. I would venture to say given a choice between having program-heavy senior services or keeping taxes at a level where seniors can continue to afford to live here, the senior entertainment programs won’t make the cut – even among seniors. Yes, that may be considered heresy in the current political climate where the senior vote is important and taking anything away “costs you votes.” This is but an example. Another, consider that some towns don’t keep their transfer station open 5 days a week. Maybe we save there. Whatever the savings, people are going to enjoy less service or a smaller balance in their checkbooks. It’s math.
Looking ahead, are there positive things we can do? Sure. Since 2013 the Republicans have been advocating for expert advice on what to do with the golf course. Have we received it? No. The Democratic administrations keep dangling the high-density development carrot before our noses, but we’re not biting. It may not be the cash cow some have hoped, but it sure has become an eyesore, and with that, sadly, diminished value. Could it generate some revenue? Possibly, but not if we don’t look at our options.
The reality is Woodbridge simply does not have revenue-enhancing options other towns have, both by physical layout and culture. But costs increase while taxpayers’ ability or willingness to pay do not. Let’s deal with it by prioritizing our spending and having the courage to eliminate costs that do not address our top priorities – all in the framework of ending the never-ending mill rate increases that have diminished the home values for two-thirds of us and driven up taxes for the other third.