Editor’s note: While this controversy has focused on the two towns most immediately affected by the proposed legislation (Haddam and East Haddam), I believe this issue is of interest to anyone in the state who is involved with conservation and preservation of open space, farmlands, nature preserves, etc. since SB 1196 will apply not just to this particular 17-acre parcel but to any state-protected property. That is why I am posting this story on all of our news sites. The bill is currently going before the House and Senate. If you have concerns, or if you would like to support this bill, now would be the time to contact your local representatives. This story also contains links to the two Web sites for the opponents and the developers and their supporters. Letters to the Editor on this subject can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org (Posted May 12, 2011)
While he initially felt some economic benefit could come of a controversial proposal to use state-protected property in Haddam for development, East Haddam First Selectman Mark Walter has now joined fellow selectmen in sending a letter to the state to oppose the plan.
Walter said in an interview today that he originally favored the idea as “trying to support a regional focus on tourism.”
The state-protected land is in the Tylerville section of Haddam near the Connecticut River. Private developers Riverhouse Properties want to develop the land for a hotel or inn, shops, entertainment and other amenities.
They have proposed a land swap that would give Haddam 87 acres of woods in the Higganum section of town, adjacent to Cockaponset State Forest.
Just before the East Haddam Board of Selectmen’s meeting last week, that evening Walter had said, “At this point, I am starting to get the facts and understand how all this works… there’s a lot of misinformation out there… the main reason I am supportive of the Haddam selectman [First Selectman DeStefano, who favors the swap] is because we want to promote economic development in that corridor.”
“How it gets done is where it gets complicated, because it could set a precedence… it is of interest to both towns – to the whole state, really – because it’s being done through legislation,” he said.
Today, Walter said discussion at the selectmen’s meeting persuaded him that the legislation could have long-term negative impact on negotiations with property owners considering donating or selling their land for conservation purposes.
“As we have looked more and more into this, I have become uncomfortable with this use of state land,” Walter said.
The proposal has had strong support from State Sen. Eileen Daily – as it has in past years when it was unsuccessfully proposed – but it has ignited a firestorm of protest from many of her constituents.
Despite those protests, the bill is making progress. As of today, Senate Bill 1196 has already received unanimous approval from the Legislature’s Finance Committee and so, is set to go before the House and Senate.
Not compelling enough
In an interview last week, East Haddam Selectman Peter Govert said he introduced the motion to write the letter opposing Senate Bill 1196.
“First and foremost, I believe it will have a chilling effect on land conservation and preservation when it comes to donors,” he said.
He noted that at a Democratic Town Committee meeting attended by Sen. Daily, he heard an East Haddam resident who had recently sold a sizeable piece of land for conservation say that if this land swap had occurred before the sale, she would have decided to sell the land to a developer “and get more money.”
Govert also recalled that this “land conveyance bill” was vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell twice in the past. “This would be the third time they are trying to get it passed,” he said.
As for sending a letter to the Legislature, Govert said, “We thought we’d send a very clear message that we don’t support it.”
He added that the decision was not entered into lightly.
“We didn’t rush into this position… We talked about this at previous (Board of Selectmen) meetings. We discussed the pro’s and con’s. We saw the Powerpoint presentation by Riverhouse Development (March 10). We’ve looked at the (Stop the Swap) Web site,” Govert said.
Whether or not the plans he’s seen are realistic is another one of his concerns, Govert said: “We aren’t convinced by the state or by the developers that they have a viable plan. There are a lot of unanswered questions. Who pays for sewage? What about drinking water? Where’s the traffic plan?”
Govert also has some concerns about a part of the bill that includes 2.7 acres owned by Goodspeed. “It’s near the parking lot that the town (East Haddam) owns, by the river,” he said. The Town of East Haddam has an easement on that property for use of the boat launch.
He added that while Sen. Daily has said this property has been removed from the bill, “the last time I looked on the (legislative) Web site, it was still there.”
Opening a door
Walter also expressed concern that if this legislation passes, it could encourage other proposals that could be more difficult to stop.
For example, he recalled a proposal by the Audubon Society to sell a piece of land known as the Harlow Haagenson Preserve off of Creek Road.
The proposal led to the formation of a Friends of Haagenson to stop the sale, and former State Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal also stepped in, Walter said.
“Now, there are rumblings that the Audubon may try again to sell it,” Walter said.
He also pointed to the town’s acquisition of 280 acres known as the Shagrue property that ended up being resolved in court as an example of how complicated land negotiations can be.
Two sisters shared ownership – one owned five-sixths of the land and another one-sixth – and the court had to settle which part of the farm would constitute the one-sixth that was retained by one sister, Walter said. “This was because the (preserved) land had to stay in active farm use.”
“So, it’s never easy… and this bill could set a precedence that would make it even more difficult,” Walter said.
A viable plan?
East Haddam Selectman Emmett Lyman also expressed serious concern about the legislation opening the door to similar deals and the effect that could have on future negotiations.
Lyman noted he served on the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Open Space Commission, “and I am very aware of how difficult it is to convince people to turn land over to the town or state.”
“One thing you’re always up against is a developer standing there with a checkbook in his back pocket,” Lyman said.
What gives the town, state agency or conservation group some kind of edge is a “special trust” that the property – and perhaps family memories connected to that land – will be protected from development, he said.
If this land conveyance bill is approved, “what we’re doing is violating that trust,” he said.
“East Haddam has been very actively looking for open space and my feeling is people considering making a deal with us will now ask themselves, ‘How long is it going to take for you to sell it to someone else?’”
He noted that in one instance, it took the town 10 years to negotiate with owners of a farm property. “That isn’t uncommon at all. It’s often a long and very fragile process,” he said.
Lyman said he’s also surprised at how little the State has offered to convince residents this land swap would be a good thing. “I expected the State to come forth with really compelling arguments why this would be good for tourism, for the economy… they didn’t. In the past, they (the proponents) have just slid it past us – and that makes people uncomfortable,” Lyman said.
He added that he, himself, has 40 acres of land near Six Flags in Suffield and if this legislation passes, he would personally feel worried about selling or donating his property for conservation.
He also has simple ethical issues with the proposal, he said. “This is conservation money that comes from you and me and other taxpayers,” Lyman said.
He added, “Do I think economic development is important in the lower Connecticut River Valley? Could we use some help? Yes. But let’s do it in a very public way. And I just don’t think the case has been made… it has to be public and it has to be compelling because you’re betraying a trust.”
Originally posted in East Haddam Today on May 11, 2011; site walk poster added May 12
Web site for proponents of the land swap http://www.haddamlandswap.com/
Sharp debate over land swap proposal, NPR http://www.yourpublicmedia.org/content/wnpr/sharp-debate-over-land-swap-proposal
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