Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bridgeport, Connecticut: City uses eminent domain to help controversial developer

Bridgeport -- A controversial developer who owes more than $10 million in back taxes is nonetheless getting the city's help in acquiring a parcel of land he has long wanted for a parking lot.

The City Council's Economic Development Committee this week approved a plan that will allow the Port Authority to seize a South End property by eminent domain and transfer it to developer Sal DiNardo, who would pay all costs of the acquisition.

The parcels are needed to keep Sikorsky Aircraft and businesses that lease space from DiNardo from leaving the city, economic development officials told council members. DiNardo, city officials said, would also pay for the remediation of contaminants on four sites bordering his properties on South Avenue and Atlantic Street.

"We are not funding the acquisition," said Bill Coleman, project manager with the city's Office of Planning and Economic Development. "Mr. DiNardo is writing the checks. And likewise, he would be on the hook for the remediation."

The developer is the brother of state Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo. He is known for his political connections, the $10-million-and-counting tax bill he refuses to pay on the former Remington Arms site on Bridgeport's East Side and controversial tax breaks he has received on smaller parcels in the past.

The vacant, wooded properties the city will seize are now owned by the Invensys Group, a British company. Calls to the company's Foxboro, Mass., office and its Texas headquarters were not returned. The sites border Seaside Park and are assessed at about $1 million.

"They've been sitting on these properties for 50 years," said David Kooris, the city's economic development director. The Port Authority had placed eminent domain on the table because DiNardo had previously tried to purchase the property from Invensys and failed.

The company also didn't return city officials' calls until the Connecticut Post ran a story in May about the city's intentions to acquire the property, Kooris said. Now, port officials hope to negotiate a sale, but are still leaving eminent domain as an option.

The oddly shaped parcels wrap around two of DiNardo's buildings. They would not remain off the tax rolls for long. Because DiNardo is funding the acquisition, he could receive the title immediately upon the closing.

Without the properties, he does not have the space needed to provide parking for the office building constructed for Sikorsky's use years ago when it planned to assemble the U.S. Army's Comanche reconnaissance helicopter.

The brand-new building has never been used because the Comanche project was abandoned. The building is a hard sell without parking, DiNardo, who was not at the meeting, has said.

The land would also enable ABC Supply Inc., which leases DiNardo's building on South Avenue, and a boat repair business now operating out of DiNardo's Atlantic Street warehouse to expand on those parcels.

"All have needs that they can't currently get on their existing sites," Kooris said.

Sikorsky, meanwhile, would benefit from the acquisition because DiNardo has consented, in a land disposition agreement negotiated by the city, to give Bridgeport the right to build a road through the properties.

That road, Kooris said, would allow the city to end South Avenue at the point where Sikorsky's buildings -- on either side of South Avenue -- begin. The city would then abandon Barnum Dyke, a short street connecting South Avenue and Atlantic Street.

Sikorsky would then own the land where the roads are now.

Creating a large campus, without a public street running through it, would enable Sikorsky to consider the site for future expansions and maintain its usefulness to the business, which has been downsizing and recently announced layoffs in Connecticut.

It would also give Sikorsky the option to consider renewable energy solutions for its Bridgeport site, Kooris said.

"The fear I have is Sikorsky says it's not worth it to add online operations there and we're going to shut it down," he added.

The council members accepted the city's reasoning, but showed reluctance in approving DiNardo's part. "It's a creative solution" to the Port Authority's lack of funds, Councilman Angel DePara said sarcastically.

Coleman, who was president of the Bridgeport Economic Development Corp. for seven years, said that's the same tactic used by the organization to acquire the downtown property where developer Phil Kuchma's mixed-use building now sits.

"And he doesn't get to build the (city) road," asked Councilman Steven Stafstrom, eliciting nervous chuckles from city officials with the indirect reference to the city's recent decision to pay developer Manuel "Manny" Moutinho $400,000 to build a driveway leading to his mansion in Stratford. The city claimed it needed to provide a right-of-way through airport property owned by Bridgeport to move forward with improvements at Sikorsky Memorial Airport, but council members say they were never told of the driveway plans when they approved the funds last year.

Neighbors of the driveway filed an appeal, though, and a court has now overturned the driveway approval Moutinho received. It now is supposed to be removed.

Still, Stafstrom noted that because DiNardo would be on the hook for the money and the Port Authority is a separate legal entity, he felt comfortable that the city would not be on the hook if the deal were to go awry.

The plan, approved Tuesday, will now be forwarded to the full council for a vote at its next meeting on Aug. 5.

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