Let’s not flip our LIDs

Let’s say you live next door to 20 acres of beautiful, unspoiled private forest land. The city sees it as a good

chance to protect open space, and so it spends a couple million dollars to buy it.

Who benefits more: the general public...or you?

Sure, every islander will get to enjoy the new park. But you can bet that when it comes time to put your home on the market, you will profit from the fact that the city invested tax dollars to create a prime amenity right next door. Lucky you – and no one will begrudge you your windfall.

So we’re surprised by recent concerns that downtown property owners will make out like bandits because the city is putting some $20.6 million into utility replacement and amenities on Winslow Way. Some argue that the city should create a Local Improvement District by which to charge costs of the “Streetscape” project to commercial properties, thus sparing the general taxpayer the burden.

It’s a fair question, as the city has indeed used LID financing for past projects – but in almost every instance, the beneficiaries were exclusively private parties rather than the general public. Three times in the last 15 years, the city has formed LIDs to bail out failing water systems (Rockaway Beach, the Commodore neighborhood, and decrepit pipes serving homes around Sands Avenue); twice, to create or improve residential streets for development (Alder Avenue, Justin Court); and once, to bring sewers to south-end homes plagued by septic problems. In each case, the projects enhanced the value of specific parcels rather than promoting some general, island-wide good, so those who reaped the benefit paid the bill. (The arguable exception would be LID 13; commercial parcels were charged for the widening of High School Road, presumably on the basis of better traffic circulation for the shopping center, but we all got something out of that one.)

By law, a Local Improvement District must be predicated on a “special benefit” – an improvement that raises property values in measurable ways – to justify an assessment on affected parcels. So why not an LID on Winslow Way? Surely property owners there will see at least some financial gain from the Streetscape project, right?

While it was poorly explained at the last council meeting, the city administration has doubts that formation of a downtown LID would be OK’d if put to a vote of owners. As project manager Chris Wierzbicki says, the utility improvements won’t add capacity to allow more intense development; whatever someone might build along Winslow Way after the work, they can already build today. That would leave the city to prove how much amenities like underground power lines or more street trees would improve values. The city doesn’t see cumbersome LID financing of $2.6 million – the non-utility, non-road portion of the project, about 13 percent – as sufficient reason to risk delaying the work.

Will there be a Streetscape windfall? Sure, fine. But do we really want a double standard for residential and commercial property owners, just because someone downtown “might” benefit? Every time the city saves a tract of open space (and we’ve saved quite a bit lately), the immediate neighbors reap a nice boost in their property values. That is the nature of public investment: someone is always going to be closer than others to where the money is spent.

We all still benefit. Where more than downtown?

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