The town is moving forward with a proposal to sell a large portion of land it owns on South Park Avenue to a conservation group that would preserve it and become stewards of the Mill River, a state recognized wild trout stream, that runs through the land.
Once known as the DiNardo Farm, the town purchased the 29-acre property from a developer in 2008 for $6 million to prevent construction of 74 units of affordable housing and to preserve the land as open space.
The Aspetuck Land Trust, which has conserved 1,450 acres in Easton, will use a $188,000 state Department of Environmental Protection grant to purchase roughly 19 acres of the parcel. The selling price is $400,000 with the land trust making up the difference.
The sale needs approval at a town-wide referendum later this year. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for April 18 at 7 p.m. at Samuel Staples Elementary School. The sale will also be on the agenda at annual town meeting on April 25.
First Selectman David Bindelglass said the land trust’s purchase will maintain the property, which the town currently does. But most important the sale would protect the most scenic and ecologically sensitive portion of the property where the Mill River runs through it.
The Mill River is classified as a class 1 wild trout management area by state environmental officials. The classification means its streams are cold and clean enough for wild brook and brown trout to naturally reproduce year-round. Only 9 such rivers exist in the state.
“We really want to protect the river,” Bindelglass said.
If the land trust sale is approved, the fate of the remaining 10 plus acres on the property remains in question. The acreage consists of meadows and flat land. Recently, it has been mentioned in the town’s effort to meet a state mandate that requires all towns have a plan in place to address affordable housing issues.
David Brant, the land trust’s executive director, said the trust is talking with town officials to purchase the remaining 10 acres, but for now the priority is to purchase the 19 acres along the shoreline of the Mill River.
“This is chapter one. There is a chapter two,” Brant said.
The land trust’s purchase of the 19 acres would add to its ongoing creation of a Green Corridor to protect land, wildlife, and water resources that extend through lower Fairfield county. Weston voters recently approved selling 85 acres to the land trust to be kept as open space.
What is certain is that the future of the remaining 10 acres rests in the hands of voters. Under a new land ordinance, any town-owned property will have to be approved by voters at a referendum.
“That was the intent of the new ordinance,” Bindelglass said.
The South Park property has been the subject of litigation, studied, and eyed by developers and local preservationists. In 2014, the Board of Selectman considered Sacred Heart University’s proposal to build a swimming pool and fields on the land. The university backed out of the proposal. The New England Prayer Center purchased the property for $300,000 but pulled out of the deal.
Citizens for Easton, a local environmental group, would like the entire South Park property to be preserved in perpetuity as open space. CFE board member Leslie Minasi said the group is working with the land trust to help facilitate the purchase of the remaining ten acres with a conservation easement to be named in memory of former First Selectman William J. Kupinse Jr.
In 2020, the South Park Advisory Committee was formed to explore potential uses for the property. Committee members looked at low-income senior housing, a solar farm, a llama preserve, a hemp farm, a cemetery and a town pool/splash park. The remaining possibilities included sale to the Aspetuck Land Trust and keeping the property as open space.
The committee ultimately decided by a majority to keep the land as open space or farmed , according to its final report.