This week the South Park Advisory Commission had a lengthy discussion with great public participation about the South Park Avenue property. Their mission was primarily fact finding, but the land use consultant Justin Giorlando brought forward a proposal for part of the land. The proposal would split the land into two parcels and sell part to the Aspetuck Land Trust with the state contributing to the purchase with a grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
The parcel would be divided into a roughly 17-acre tract along the river which would include the environmentally sensitive areas of the property. Twelve acres which remain would be left for future consideration for the town to hold onto or sell for a yet to be determined purpose. There has been no discussion as of yet about what to do with the remaining 12 acres.
The value of the property would be assessed. The grant application relies on strict criteria for how the land is valued. Negotiation of price is not allowed under these circumstances. The land trust would take possession of the land and would be responsible for stewardship of the river. This would guarantee that the land would stay as open space forever. Something not guaranteed by the town’s owning the property.
Why would I bring this plan to the town for its consideration? If the land is kept as one parcel it seems unlikely that any conservation group will purchase the entire plot to keep it open space. If the town holds on to it, it would stay open space, which arguably was the intent for the land, but recent studies show pollution in the river, and the town does little to take care of the property. The land trust is the ultimate experts at caring for the land and the river.
The parcel would not only remain open forever but its upkeep would be improved. In addition, there is nothing we can do about what was originally paid for the land or what we still owe on that land today. This may be the only opportunity to gain any revenue from the property. There may or may not be an opportunity to collect any revenue on the more economically valuable acreage in the future, which the committee is still studying, but we don’t know.
Where is there disagreement? The application for the grant to make this happen is due July 1. The shear lack of time means that even with a Herculean effort to get the appropriate information to the public and give the public a voice, the selectmen would be selling a major and controversial piece of land with little public input. That absolutely is the opposite of what I promised when I ran for office, and I get that.
Second, the COVID-19 situation has clearly depressed real estate values. It is possible that the value of the land will be appraised higher in the future. It is possible that we could find a better offer or that selling this piece would decrease the value of the remaining property for development in the future. It is possible that someone would buy the whole parcel to conserve it, but the Aspetuck Land Trust will not, and no one has in the last 12 years, so we would be paying interest waiting for this to possibly occur.
We are nowhere near even a suggestion for what to do with the remaining 12-acre plot, if the 17 acres are sold, but if it were developed we would have to trust the land trust to make sure that whatever is done on the 12 acres would not impact the 17 acres along the river. Frankly, again they are more likely to do a better job of protecting the river and ecologically sensitive land than the town is. Lastly, we must finalize that we can file this application for consideration from the state, and that we can use the proceeds to pay off part of the bond we hold for the land.
These concerns must be weighed against the admittedly hypothetical consideration that this offer may not be available in the future either because of the state or a withdrawal of the offer from the land trust. If we lose this opportunity the land will stay as town-owned open space. I believe it will be less well cared for, and we lose the revenue opportunity.
My personal opinion is that if we can obtain a reasonable price this is a good deal for our town. We can debate the virtues of waiting and the price. I also believe that not presenting this opportunity to the town would be irresponsible on my part. I do intend to seek an appraisal of the value of the parcel. I hope you will consider this a fair and balanced presentation of the facts, and I am happy to solicit comments.