The simple low-cost solution to improving Litchfield County’s economic prosperity is greater second home development/ownership, tourism and permanent resident transplants who primarily made their income outside of the County. Unlike other counties in CT, Litchfield County’s greatest competitive advantage is its natural rural beauty and country life, historic and cultural assets, farms and vineyards, land preserves, recreational activities (on our lakes, rivers, and ski mountains), and restaurants all within close proximity to NYC.
After attending many town and political events regarding Washington’s, Roxbury’s and the County’s future, I realized no one was discussing supporting our largest economic growth generator and employment opportunity. The discussions were focused on providing more affordable housing (seniors, young families, emergency volunteers), attracting young families, tax incentives and land, farm and environmental preservation – all admirable efforts — often at the cost of higher taxes and of questionable success. This is exemplified by Roxbury’s Draft Plan: https://bit.ly/3avSQNg
Almost all current statewide conversations revolve around our economic distress — Litchfield County and CT as a whole have declined precipitously over the past 10 years — declining employment (One of two states that has failed to recover jobs lost in the recession), declining population — the 4th greatest decline in the U.S. — 63 percent of CT moves are out of the state versus 37 percent moves in, 22,000 departures in 2019 and over 200,000 departures over nine years, declining school population, old and aging population, lower property values, growing unfunded pension liabilities (2nd highest in the nation per capita), 4th most burdensome regulatory environment, very high taxes, and the Federal Reserve predictions of economic contraction in 2020. Litchfield County can be the exception! Litchfield County has the resources (natural beauty) and proximity to NYC to reverse this downward spiral if town zoning boards recognize the true problem and reverse course to support development.
Most of our current problems and hopeful political dreams will be answered in large part by increased second home ownership and more permanent transplants — not the often-proposed solutions of restrictions on development and promoting growth through tax incentives to various “need” groups. These second homeowners and transplants are primarily city dwellers and other professionals. They made their income in better employment markets and have chosen to spend part of it on a better quality of life. They tend to be low key, well-educated, high net worth, generous, and creative. Second homeowners are of all ages and transplants are typically retired but both bring and spend non-local sources of income.
Although second homeowners and transplants account for 25-35 percent of taxpayers in Litchfield County, they often contribute more than double that of our property tax base and cost less than 10 percent of town and school budgets. This results in very low tax rates for all residents. Our County’s most desirable rural towns to second homeowners and transplants that offer the lowest taxes include Roxbury (15.85 mills), Salisbury (11.6 mills), Sharon (14.4 mills) and Washington (14.25 mills). Second homeowners often pay over $15,000 a year in taxes with no public-school attendance and yet the average full-time family with two school children pays closer to $5,000 in taxes and utilizes over $50,000 in school budget.
Second homeowners and transplants are often the largest employers and income sources to our local services. They are often the backers of new creative businesses – look at our best boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and inns. They provide the greatest funding, attendance and support for arts, culture, and community non-profits.
Support high quality development designed for second homeowners and property improvement applications. The greatest impediment to growth is overly restrictive zoning boards and wetlands and historic commissions who deny or deter development rather than working with developers to achieve common goals maintaining the economic viability of the proposals. The power of the local zoning boards cannot be overstated. They often act in opposition to our Plans of Development and stated community goals. Just as a few loud opponents denied Amazon’s proposed campus in Queens costing 25,000 high-paying jobs, our Zoning Boards and Commissions have denied numerous projects of similar impact relatively speaking often at the behest of intervenors.
We need to welcome and support new second home development and feeder inns instead of allowing the few, loud, anti-development forces to prevail. An influx of second homeowners and transplants will mean increasing home values and lower taxes for all. We should recognize and welcome second home development in Town Plans like Roxbury’s now under consideration but lacking this as a stated goal.
Roxbury Woods’ development denial was a perfect example of Roxbury’s largest lost economic growth opportunity — a proposal for 11 “green” design modern cabins. Roxbury has only had, on average, two new home permits taken out per year over the past 10 years. If approved, the “Woods” would have increased property values in Roxbury, especially values of the homes in close proximity, listed in the $150-200 per square foot range, and out of date and out of favor with second home buyers. They were designed for creative, environmentally conscious city dwellers willing to pay a premium to have a second home in Roxbury, yet would also be perfect for downsizing seniors.
Roxbury Woods, www.thewoodsroxbury.com/homes, was modeled after Hudson Woods, www.hudsonwoods.com/, that transformed Kerhonkson, N.Y. (a hamlet with a population of 1,684). The Kerhonkson assessor and numerous news articles confirm this transformation.
If Roxbury Woods had been approved, Roxbury’s $600 million Grand List and property values would have increased, reversing the 7 percent decline over the past 10 years reported by Zillow. The ever-increasing taxes would have stabilized or decreased and construction and service employment would have increased.
Like Hudson Woods, these modern environmentally friendly sustainable green homes would be copied and lead to further similar applications and Roxbury’s goal of attracting 25 new families over the next 10 years will be far exceeded. Hopefully, Roxbury, the developer, and the neighbors will come up with an economically viable solution to proceed as it will benefit all.
Wykeham Rise in Washington is a perfect example of Zoning Board and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) deterrence. Wykeham Rise, www.wykehamrise.com/, a former school site, is a proposed 49-suite luxury inn and spa backed by local second homeowners and to be operated by Ocean House Management. If built, Wykeham Rise will transform Washington for the better — just as the Mayflower, White Hart Inn, Winvian and Ocean House did for their communities. Each car carrying guests would generate over $1,000 in room rentals and local sales per day. Affluent hotel guests would be prospective and likely second home buyers.
In one Wykeham Rise variation, potential condo unit sales for in excess of $1,000 psf were proposed which would have retained our affluent down-sizing seniors and further enhanced property values town-wide. Guests would include private school parents, tourists, shoppers and diners. Wykeham Rise would increase the publicity, desirability, vitality of Washington and local home values especially those closest to it. Washington’s $1.2 billion grand list would increase substantially with a $60 million project that would reduce everyone’s taxes.
Support development of tourism, restaurants and cultural activities. The feeder market to second and transplant home ownership is tourism and hotel stays. Future second homeowners must see how beautiful and accessible Litchfield County is to take the next step of buying a home. We are a closer, year-round destination without hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, extreme temperatures and altitude sickness. Every $1 spent in hotels generates $6 in secondary revenues. Tourism expands employment opportunities especially for young people. The Washington business community has created an award winning web site to promote tourism — www.explorewashingtonct.com/. This web site has worked. It has elevated the public perception of Washington as the best of country living. Other Litchfield towns should emulate this acclaimed professional presentation of their resources and smaller towns might join with more active towns (for example— Roxbury with Washington).
With no tax incentives needed, our Zoning Boards must support tourism, inns, and cultural activities to spur growth, to allow potential second homeowners to visit and to support our local private school visitor needs, restaurants and shops. It is a shame that new Washington restrictions limit small inns to State Highways contrary to historic precedent — the Lake Waramaug inns would never have existed under the new provisions.
In general, our Zoning Boards must stop allowing a few vocal litigious opponents to chill economic and cultural growth in our County over the general interests of the community as a whole. NIMBY opposition has a self-deluded obsession, energy and loud voice but does not recognize how denial of development has led to their own home value destruction and lowered quality of life to the entire community.
Newly proposed restrictive zoning changes limiting cultural events, social benefits, and re-invention and transformation of our farms and vineyards threaten Washington’s prosperity, in effect chilling all cultural gatherings, benefit events and private parties. The Washington Planning Commission unanimously opposed the proposed restrictions as inconsistent with the Town’s 2014 Plan of Development and the Northwest Council of Governments wrote in opposition as well yet the Zoning Board is still considering them.
Our Litchfield County towns must stop mowing down the few sprouts of economic and cultural development being proposed and reverse anti-growth sentiments. If we do, a vibrant community and economic growth will prevail and all residents will benefit.