RTM votes down lease policy proposal

Pictured this winter, the North Mianus Boat and Yacht Club was at the center of the lease policy discussion before the RTM. —Ken Borsuk photo

Pictured this winter, the North Mianus Boat and Yacht Club was at the center of the lease policy discussion before the RTM.
—Ken Borsuk photo

Months of discussion and controversy ended up being for naught as  a policy meant to provide guidelines for town leases was voted down by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) by a 102 to 74 margin with two abstentions.

The guidelines were developed by a special RTM subcommittee but the full body voted it down at its Sept. 16 meeting, obligating the RTM to continue to adhere to the current lease policy, which requires a case-by-case method of approving leases and renewals for town-owned properties.

The subcommittee’s policy had been in the works since January when the RTM deferred a vote on the town’s lease with the Mianus River Boat and Yacht Club, saying it had not received an adequate universal policy on leases from the Board of Selectmen. The body referred the lease to the Finance and Legislative and Rules committees and a subcommittee was formed from their members to develop a policy for the several leases of town property to individuals and non-governmental agencies.

This caused a back and forth debate between the selectmen and members of the RTM over who had the authority here. First Selectman Peter Tesei insisted the town had a policy, which was to consider each lease of town property individually on its merits. Meanwhile, members of the boat and yacht club cried foul, saying their lease was being held hostage and that the process put an unfair burden on them.

In addressing the RTM about the policy, subcommittee Chairman Erf Porter explained that the group found it of vital importance that lessees or potential lessees clearly demonstrate the benefits of their lease to the town as well as their performance “against lease responsibilities,” particularly in the cases of those seeking a lease renewal.

According to Mr. Porter, the proposed lease guidelines would be included in the addendum of the town’s current lease policy to be used as a reference guide, rather than an official part of the rules.

Urging RTM members to simply vote up or down for the proposed guidelines, Mr. Porter reminded the body, “If you vote against [the guidelines] you’re trusting that the existing Board of Selectmen policy/process, and that the RTM review process that we currently have in place, will be adequate and that the oversight and advice that you would get from the Finance Committee, Legislative and Rules, and any other standing committees that are responsible for evaluating the lease, would be appropriate.”

Legislative and Rules Committee Chair Douglas Wells reiterated that the proposed guidelines would be advisory rather than mandatory, explaining that they would serve as an aid to RTM members when reviewing town leases and would suggest a formula to help the body in the decision-making process. The guidelines would not require RTM members to vote a certain way, he said, adding that they were intended to provide objective criteria that would be helpful at the time of a lease vote.

Those opposed to the proposed policy repeatedly referenced what they interpreted as the guidelines’ dismissal of capital improvements made by tenants, which, they claimed, are critical to nonprofit lessees in being considered for a renewal.

Mike Harris, a member of the Greenwich Arts Council, argued that while no capital improvement should entitle someone to a lease, the work done to improve a property and what kind of steward a group or individual has been during their tenure should be recognized.

Similarly, Michele Smith, president of the Greenwich Education Center (GEC), explained that while she understood the need for the town to review its lease policy and to develop clearer and more concise rules, some of the changes within the proposed guidelines would be “detrimental” to nonprofit organizations. Specifically, she said, the concept of advertising the availability of property for lease at market rate would be unfair.

Nonprofit organizations like the GEC could not possibly compete with commercial businesses in the rent they might be willing to pay, despite the beneficial services such groups provide to the town, she said. Additionally, Ms. Smith insisted that prior tenant improvements should be recognized while being considered for a lease renewal. If such improvements were not considered it would mean the many improvements nonprofit organizations make to town properties via private donation would be at risk because it would discourage private donor contributions.

Stuart Adelberg, president of the Greenwich United Way and Greenwich Arts Council board member, echoed Ms. Smith’s sentiments, saying he feared that philanthropic donations made to improve town properties could be affected by the proposed lease guidelines. The town benefits from many public-private partnerships that could be at risk if the guidelines are accepted as is, he said.

Several individuals spoke in favor of the guidelines as well, noting their use as advisory rather than mandatory.

Kip Burgweger, a member of the subcommittee, argued that if they were not adopted, the only lease policy in effect would be the current Board of Selectmen rules, which the RTM did not find satisfactory in the first place. Instead of relying on the selectmen’s case-by-case method, Mr. Burgweger urged the body to adopt the proposed lease guidelines in order to use them as a means of more clearly understanding the issues before them.

RTM member Mike Warner agreed, insisting that the lease debate began as an issue of fairness and that the guidelines help provide that equilibrium. Additionally, he said, the guidelines would allow the town to understand the value of its resources.

Establishing value would not mean asking for more money from those who are taking advantage of the town’s resources, “but we ought to know what the value is of a piece of property before we go ahead and lease it for a dollar. It’s worthwhile for the town to know that information,” Mr. Warner said.

Jill Oberlander, a member of the subcommittee, also spoke of the merits of the proposed guidelines, calling out opponents who referred to them as “ambiguous.” The Board of Selectmen’s case-by-case policy is also ambiguous, she argued, because it is not clear what a potential lessee will be judged on. The proposed recommendations may only be guidelines, “but they will inform the debate for years to come by encouraging RTM members to ask the town difficult questions when they present a lease,” she said.

Now members of the Mianus River Boat and Yacht Club are expected to finally get the up-and-down vote they’ve been calling for at the RTM’s October meeting.

In other RTM news, the establishment of a Harbor Management Commission was approved overwhelmingly. The commission will be tasked with creating a new harbor management plan, and will have jurisdiction within and over all “navigable waters” and intertidal areas below the mean high water line of the shoreline of Greenwich. With no discussion on the topic raised, the RTM went straight to a vote, with results that showed 150 in favor, three opposed and two abstentions.


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