Windham Council supports residential use at Windham Mills

Windham Mills in Willlimantic, CT. Image source: TWB Properties

Residential use at the Windham Mills complex may happen, but maybe not as soon as the property’s owners would like.

The Windham Town Council voted 5-4 Tuesday (May 15) to support the Windham Economic Development Commission’s thumbs-up for residential development at the mills.

The council vote will be forwarded as an advisory to the Windham Planning and Zoning Commission.

Thomas Briggs, president of TWB Properties (Loch View LLC) was pleased with the outcome. “It was close, but a positive is a positive,” said Briggs.

Windham Mills developers came to the town earlier this year to ask for a zone change that would allow them to supplement the industrial/ commercially-zoned property with high-end apartments.

Since buying the property out of bankruptcy in 2008, mill owners have struggled to fulfill a vision of the riverfront as a hub of industry and commerce.

The complex, however, is only about 30 percent occupied and most of its tenants have relocated from other areas in town, which critics doesn’t equate to true economic development.

Some in town have expressed concern over a purported “tax abatement” they say was offered to the mill developers based on their promise to fill the space with industrial tenants.

The mill owners received a seven-year, fixed tax assessment when negotiating the $5.5 million purchase price.

Briggs said the owners gave the town certain parcels on the property in exchange for the fixed assessment of 70 percent of the purchase price, which is the amount they pay property taxes on.

The town has not done a revaluation since the property was purchased. Windham due for a reval in October of 2012 but requested a postponement based on concern that plummeting property values would negatively impact property owners and the town’s Grand List.

On the other hand, it’s possible the mill owners would have benefited because of the anticipated decrease in property values.

“We are one of the largest taxpayers in Windham,” said Briggs. “We are getting nothing different than everyone else. We pay more taxes every year.”

The PZC asked for direction from the Town Council on Briggs’ request.

PZC Chair Paula Stahl said it isn’t something that can be decided quickly.

Stahl said the commission has several factors to consider, including the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.

“We cannot make any change unless it’s consistent with our town’s Plan of Conservation and Development. The mills (are) not included in ( that) for anything other than what it’s currently zoned,” Stahl said in an interview Wednesday.

Stahl added that a zoning change would affect more than just the mills. “Any change we would make would affect every single parcel in the M-3 zone,” Stahl said. The zone encompasses about 26 acres in addition to the mills property, she noted, some of which is used for manufacturing purposes and some of which is vacant.

Windham Economic Development Commissioner Bob Horrocks said he believes the zone could be dissected, but Stahl said that is not the case.

“You could create a new zone, but a new zone can’t be for just one property. It’s called spot zoning and it’s against the law,” said Stahl.

Stahl also said the commission needs to consider what impact the zone change would have on all of the other ongoing economic development projects in town.

Mill owners are hoping for a decision soon. Once approved, they could have residential units ready within 12 to 18 months, they said.

However, Stahl said the matter could take up to two years. “Whatever you decide … this is going to take quite a long time,” said Stahl.

Whether housing is economic development was one point of contention at the meeting.

Horrocks said it is an “erroneous assumption” to say it isn’t.

Horrocks pointed to the Storrs Center project under construction in Mansfield, near the University of Connecticut, the first phase of which is expected to open this summer to make his point. Storrs Center is a mixed-used development that will include a variety of housing, as well as shops, restaurants, service businesses and other uses.

Harrocks noted Storrs Center’s market rate rentals, which begin at about $1,000 a month, are all leased, and most of the first-floor commercial units are spoken for.

“Storrs Center is booming. It will work there and it will work here,” said Horrocks.

Council member Christel Donahue said she doesn’t believe Windham has the necessary housing demand, voted against the approval motion as did council members Tony Fantoli, Arnaldo Rivera and Charles Krich.

“I don’t find this to be economic development,” said Krich.

Posted May 17, 2012 as Edited by Editor Brenda Sullivan

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