Should any of us really have much sympathy for Simsbury, a leafy, horsey town with nearly the highest median home prices and incomes in the region?
You might want to think again.
Because the thing is, you could say a lot of the future direction of this state is wrapped up in the comfortable, everything-looks-just-fine communities like Simsbury, which define a good portion of Connecticut.
Young people are leaving and not returning. "Active Adults" (55 and over) are driving the local real estate growth industry. Developers complain towns have no idea about their economic future — and where the tax revenue comes from. In some Farmington Valley towns even modest town budget increases are being rejected by voters. Meanwhile, big companies say they can't recruit workers because not even the renowned local schools can overcome the sticker shock of a housing market where you need $350,000 just to open the bidding.
Still, it was surprising at first to hear the dire language from Mary Glassman, Simsbury's promising first selectwoman, when I listened as she spoke at a bankers' forum about affordable housing the other day.
"We are under a lot of stress. ... We have to go it alone. ... There's a lot of pressure on our community," she said at various times during a two-hour discussion. "I'm afraid we are going to wake up too late."
Driving over the mountain to Simsbury the next day, I thought, whoa there, Mary. Your high school lacrosse team is ranked fifth in the state. There's a beautiful new library in the town center, a busy Starbucks and big SUVs clogging every intersection. Voters the other day approved $2.7 million to be spent on land preservation to add to the forests, meadows and acres of soccer fields.
I mean, how bad could things be in a town that recently rejected a development that would have brought more shopping, housing, homes — and all kinds of tax revenue to town? Glassman told me a story when we met for lunch.
Not long after her election last fall, she was meeting with executives from a big insurance company that has a big office beneath Avon Mountain.
"We met with The Hartford. They are finding it very difficult to attract young people," Glassman told me. Young people, even ones with decent insurance salaries, "can't live in this town. Their top candidates are going elsewhere."
Which means the raw material of Connecticut: Young families — who buy homes, pay taxes and patronize local businesses — won't be here. Which means private employers have trouble expanding, or go elsewhere. Which is why, she said, what happens in Simsbury is inextricably linked to the growth and health of the rest of the state.
"It's not just a problem that Simsbury is facing," Glassman said. "We are facing it as a region."
By 2030, Gov. M. Jodi Rell's office predicts, the population of people 65 and over in Connecticut will exceed 900,000 — a jump of more than 70 percent. The working-age population won't increase at all.
Glassman reminded me that one of the conclusions of the General Assembly's bipartisan Program Review and Investigations Committee a year ago was that Connecticut "has no clear vision for where the state wishes to be in 20 years or how it intends to get there."
You certainly could see this after the recent legislative session. Another year passes and nothing happens with property taxes and housing, two of the issues critical to our state's future. Glassman and other panelists from the other day — Republican and Democratic town officials — said the state's inaction is leaving them to figure out solutions to complicated regional problems.
Simsbury, which generates 90 percent of its tax revenue from property taxes, will study changes in its zoning this year, hoping, on its own, to find some way out of the corner it is in.
Gov. Rell and the legislature might want to start doing something about what is quietly unfolding in towns like Simsbury, where everything looks fine. Because before too long, it might be too late.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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