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RCDA board member Bill Cornish owns a blighted building In Fort Trumbull

September 22, 2018

Bill Cornish, whose properties are some of the most blighted downtown, including one historic building that the attorney general had to go to court this year to save from demolition, was appointed, incredibly, to the board of the city-subsidized Renaissance City Development Association in November 2016.

The appointment to a redevelopment agency of someone whose properties, with their boarded windows and empty storefronts, are such an affront to efforts to rebuild the city and its image, was, at best, insulting to city taxpayers.

But in July 2017, when Cornish bought an abandoned and dilapidated building at 95 Trumbull St., in the heart of the Fort Trumbull peninsula — the neighborhood the RCDA is specifically charged with rebuilding — his sitting on the RCDA board became an enormous conflict of interest.

Of course, there are the terrible optics of an RCDA board member owning a blighted building in the middle of a neighborhood the agency is trying to market to developers. As a neighboring property owner, he should not be privy to confidential negotiations to sell adjacent land, never mind voting on how or by whom it should be developed.

Much more important, though, is the fact that Cornish and the RCDA could end up competing for the set number of residential units that the state will allow to be built on the peninsula because of limited road access to the flood-prone neighborhood.

Indeed, a previous owner of 95 Trumbull St. tangled with the RCDA when he attempted to get a zone change to build residential units on the site.

In fact, it works both ways, so that not only would development of residential units in Cornish’s building affect the RCDA properties, but building new residences on the RCDA land could impact the value of Cornish’s property, if it were to prevent any future development of residential units there.

So how in the world can Cornish have a voice or a vote on any RCDA development in Fort Trumbull, when he has a direct personal stake in what’s built or not built there?

The other shocking thing I discovered, after learning of Cornish’s ownership of the building, is that Linda Mariani, RCDA president, knew nothing about it until I told her.

The agency has two paid employees and no one notified the president that, first of all, a building that is included in the footprint of the agency’s redevelopment plan was being sold, and that, when it sold, it was purchased by an RCDA board member.

How could more than a year go by without her being told that? Wow. Some board members did know it. The city’s development staff knew it.

After all, the agency and city should have at least discussed buying it, since it is so central to the redevelopment plan and a factor in the limit of residential units on the peninsula. Cornish paid $300,000. It has water frontage.

Mariani, to her credit, acknowledged almost immediately when I told her about Cornish’s owning the property at 95 Trumbull St. that it is likely a conflict of interest and she said she would like to address it with the agency’s attorney, when they finish hiring a new one.

Mayor Michael Passero told me Friday he couldn’t say whether it is a conflict.

He also defended what I will call a strangely light hand in treating Cornish blight. After all, this is the city that sought to use a crushing combination of criminal and civil penalties against a guy with bamboo growing in the yard of his house.

Two unresolved blight complaints against Cornish for his downtown buildings, made in May, are unresolved and the city has taken no steps to apply penalties. The city has lodged no blight complaints about 95 Trumbull St., which is open to the weather with a collapsed roof, marked by graffiti and surrounded by overgrown weeds.

I will take the mayor at his word when he says the treatment of Cornish has nothing to do with the fact that he was a contributor to the mayor’s campaign, the landlord for his campaign office and hosted a campaign event at his restaurant.

Cornish did not return messages I left for him.

Passero said he is trying to resolve the issues in partnership, without using the “stick” of penalties.

“We are going to work with him as a partner to achieve the good results the city needs,” the mayor said. “We haven’t had much luck with the stick.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not seeing much in the way of results from the silk glove.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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