Few things trouble taxpayers more than public officials who manipulate the system for their own benefit. Politicians too numerous to count have been hobbled over such self-dealing. Did state Rep. William Pizzuto act in his own self-interest when he slipped a zoning mandate into the state budget package last week that would prohibit the siting and construction of a large warehouse such as the one proposed for a tract of land around the corner from his Middlebury home? Only the lawmaker himself knows the answer to that query, but it’s safe to say that his actions raise a series of questions that demand answers.
Developer David Drubner had proposed a 750,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution hub on two parcels totaling 113 acres, including 7.5 acres of wetlands and additional land where fading watch titan Timex once had its world headquarters.
With conditions, the Middlebury Conservation Commission approved a wetland permit for the project last month. At a public hearing on the permit in March, Pizzuto spoke out against the project. The granting of that permit is currently under a court review after some Middlebury groups challenged it.
So it’s fair to say that there is significant public sentiment against the proposal, but public opinion alone is not a valid reason to deny permitting for the project. If a given proposal complies with town zoning codes and state laws such as those that protect wetlands, then the proposal is subject to approval.
This is likely why one of the groups opposing the project has proposed a temporary moratorium on distribution centers and warehouses of more than 100,000 square feet. That’s a positive and ethically sound move. Hitting the pause button would give the town time to draw up better zoning laws governing these large facilities.
Enter Pizzuto in his capacity as a state representative. With the knowledge of House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, the Middlebury Republican inserted a provision [see page 290] into the state spending package that bars local zoning approval of warehouses of more than 100,000 square feet in a town with a population of between 6,000 and 8,000 people.
That sounds tailor-made for Middlebury (population 7,500). But the legislation gets even more specific: Pizzuto’s provision also prohibits local approval if the facility is located on one or more parcels that are fewer than 250 acres in total, have more than five acres of wetlands, and are located within two miles of an elementary school. Those latter conditions would further prohibit the approval of the Drubner proposal.
This is normally the kind of state-over-local-control power grab that Republicans condemn without even thinking about it. Connecticut GOPers have, for example, been some of the most outspoken opponents of state laws allowing affordable housing developers to set aside local zoning rules.
In his campaign for governor last year, for example, GOP nominee Bob Stefanowski was applauded by many Republicans for his promise to repeal 8-30g, the state law allowing developers to, in effect, override local zoning codes under certain circumstances if the municipality has less than 10% of its housing stock deemed affordable by the state Department of Housing.
Pizzuto’s move will surely result in costly litigation for Middlebury. Drubner is, in the words of Waterbury Republican-American reporter Paul Hughes, “fighting mad,” and Middlebury First Selectman Edward B. St. John is “irate.” The latter was not consulted by Pizzuto and is rightly concerned that the town is going to be dragged into a legal battle at considerable expense over something it had nothing to do with.
“l am appalled that the legislature, including our local legislative people, never reached out to the town to advise us what was happening,” a horrified St. John told the paper.
Perhaps even worse, Pizzuto’s machinations have wider-ranging implications. There are at least 11 other towns in the state with populations between 6,000 and 8,000. One of them is nearby Beacon Falls, where First Selectman Gerard Smith is fit to be tied.
Encompassing a scant 10 square miles, Beacon Falls has limited land available for development, in part because of an abundance of government-owned real estate, including a large portion of the 4,100-acre Naugatuck State Forest. Smith said he has been approached by a developer who was interested in building a 330,000-square-foot trucking terminal on 30 acres.
The Pizzuto caper has put the kibosh on that much-needed development opportunity for Beacon Falls. Gov. Ned Lamont said he knew nothing about the provision when he signed the budget legislation, which passed by overwhelming bipartisan margins, but he appeared open to repealing Pizzuto’s provision in next year’s legislative session.
If nothing else, I will give Pizzuto credit for some honesty. He didn’t pretend to have slipped this hidden gem into the budget bill for any reason other than to serve the residents of Middlebury, which conveniently includes himself and his nearly $600,000 home across Christian Street from the old Timex campus. Come to think of it, Pizzuto might want to buy a new watch. He’ll need it to make sure he’s not late for court.