Op-Ed: Support Sale of 19 Acres of South Park Property to Aspetuck Land Trust

On April 18, there will be a public hearing to discuss the sale of 19 acres on South Park Avenue to the Aspetuck Land Trust. Approval of the sale will be on the agenda for the Annual Town Meeting as per the Land Use Ordinance and then will be adjourned to a machine vote.  The town purchased 29 acres on South Park Ave. in 2008, for $6.15 million. According to the ballot question the purchase was for “Preservation, conservation and land use control,” a rather vague statement of purpose.

Since then there have been a number of proposals about what to do with the South Park property as well as lawsuits to block certain plans. The Board of Selectmen actually approved a plan to sell the property to Sacred Heart University for a swimming complex several years ago, but Sacred Heart backed out of the deal. The town still owes approximately $2.66 million which will be paid off by 2029. In addition, the town has done little to maintain this land and there are a number of decaying structures and general debris there. (Thank you to DPW and those volunteers who helped to clean this up as well as Dan and Gina Blaze for their help over the years.)

In 2019 the Selectmen created a committee to study what to do. Their report is available here.  In summary, there were no clear recommendations and a suggestion to wait and see what offers developed. The majority favored this sale of 19 acres to the Land Trust.

In 2020, the town and the Metropolitan Council of Governments helped the Land Trust apply for a grant to buy these 19 acres. At the time, the Land Trust was only interested in this more sensitive piece of the property along the Mill River. They did not attempt to purchase the entire property. Based on the appraisal of the land, the state specified a purchase price of $470,000; the Land Trust was granted $188,000 from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Again, at the time this purchase was negotiated the Land Trust only offered to buy the 19 acres. We have been moving forward with necessary preparations to complete the  purchase and if the town approves the final purchase it will be completed  later this year. Obviously $470,000 is a small return given the original $6.15 million sale. The only way to recover a greater portion of the original price is to develop the land. The town could reject this sale and make that choice, but I think that is unlikely. Even trying to sell the whole 29 acres together would only generate a significantly higher price if the land is sold for development.  It is possible that in a future year the land could be valued for more (or less) and also possible that if the sale does not happen this year the state will not award this grant again at a later date making the purchase impossible.

As this sale was progressing toward a town vote, shockingly some have actually accused the Land Trust of acting in bad faith. (Everyone in town received a mailer from Citizens for Responsible Government making this claim last year.) The Land Trust is the preeminent non-profit conservation organization in the region. How anyone could disparage them is hard to understand.  Everyone in town also received the Land Trust’s response. Their motives are to maximize land preservation and conservation as you would expect.  It is clear that not completing this deal  would greatly harm their credibility and adversely affect their ability to acquire and preserve other land in our town and in our area.

These 19 acres are beautiful on their own accord, but also protective of the Mill River and its precious trout population. Who actually cares for this land is critical in  protecting the land and the river and the town is clearly not equipped to do this. The Land Trust has far better resources to steward this property.

An important  question is, “What happens to the remaining 10 acres?”

As of this writing no one has made a formal offer to the town to purchase this land. The Land Trust has expressed interest in the remaining parcel but has not made an offer.  The New England Prayer Center and a potential developer of senior housing have also expressed interest.  Discussions with all have been ongoing.  It is possible that other offers will be made. The job of the Selectmen is to receive and consider all offers, but of course due to the 2021 Land Use Ordinance it will be up to the town to decide on any further sale to any entity. The town could vote down any prospective sale and the town would own the land by 2029. I cannot emphasize enough that it was this Board of Selectmen, who after many years of others trying to do so, managed to pass this very land use ordinance so that you could decide.

I urge  you to support this sale. We will eventually find a solution for the remaining acreage but we need to preserve what we can of this property now, especially this part of it.  This is the only deal on the table now. The  solution for the remaining property will remain a concern to all until it is settled. However, the people of Easton can act now to insure the first 19 acres of this beautiful property will be preserved and cared for forever. Eastonites will also continue to have control over any future sale of the remaining land.

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