Op-Ed: Sale to Aspetuck Land Trust Will Preserve South Park

On April 18, the Board of Selectmen hosted a public hearing regarding the sale of 18.7 acres at South Park Avenue to the Aspetuck Land Trust. Presentations were made by the Aspetuck  Land Trust and Citizens for Easton as to why the sale should go through. The Land Trust, as I have discussed earlier, is the premier preservation and conservation nonprofit in the county. Citizens for Easton (CFE), as its president Verne Gay professed, has the singular goal of doing what is best for Easton. Dan and Gina Blaze, who are current tenants on the land, spoke as well of their willingness to be good neighbors with the land trust. Many people realized that preserving this land is a wonderful goal for our town and said so. However, I would like to focus on those who commented on their opposition.

One major line of opposition was that by preserving this part of the land without a definite plan for the remainder could lead to development of the remaining 10 acres. First, this agreement was announced almost two years ago, and now, only on the eve of the sale, this concern seems to be growing. The town has owned this land for 14 years, and this is the first credible attempt to preserve any of it. That is why CFE endorses it. Some asked why the land trust could not buy the whole property.

The deal for the 18.7 acres took a lengthy application process to the state for funding to make the purchase possible. As Bill Kraekel, president of the land trust, explained at the hearing, the remaining 10 acres will likely be appraised at $1 million and the land trust would have to raise the money. I understand that some people “want” the land trust to buy the whole property, and they naively think apparently that this is simple. Citizens for Responsible government has sent me a letter requesting that the sale be delayed until a comprehensive deal for the whole property could be worked out. One of my predecessors as first selectman said the same thing.

Again, the assumption is that working out a million-dollar-plus deal for 30 acres can be quickly accomplished although it is unclear who would buy the whole parcel and how they would fund it. I believe that rational people will understand that it is not that easy. The town has had discussions, as both I and the land trust have explained, looking for ways for the land trust to purchase and conserve the remaining land, and the current tenants have participated along with CFE as well. We are all hopeful that this will be and can be worked out, but again, who could think that this will happen overnight? The deal for the  land trust purchase of the first 18.7 acres took almost two years to finalize.

Then of course there are always conspiracy theorists who say that, as they have argued in similar cases where the town tried to do something that they did not like, ”Watch out for the back room deal. There is always a back room deal!” Please remember that last year you, the people of Easton, passed the land use ordinance which mandates that town land can only be bought, sold or leased with the support of the town, expressed by a town-wide vote.

Before I was elected first selectman, the selectmen could sell unlimited amounts of town land by a simple vote of the board. In fact, the selectmen did once vote to sell this whole property to Sacred Heart University.  My predecessors (including Tom Hermann who spoke at the meeting) resisted the land use ordinance because it would  curb  the selectmen’s power to make their own decisions and fought it tooth and nail. But now it is the law, which means no purchase of the remaining land can be made unless YOU say so. No “back room” deal can be made because there is no deal without a vote by the people of Easton.

Some citizens questioned whether the land trust would take care of this as well as the town could. It was even suggested that letting the land trust own Trout Brook Valley instead of the town owning and managing it was a bad idea. It was also suggested that the town could better maintain the property and take care of the Mill River. The Aspetuck Land Trust are professional conservationists. Does this argument make sense to you? Should the town take on the expense of doing the job with non-professionals and not as well?

I have added  some resources to the town meeting website in regard to the sale.  At the public hearing, Dori Wollen, the chairman of the town Conservation Commission, recommended voting down the purchase. The letter from the Conservation Commission supporting the purchase is now posted. I am not certain what caused her complete reversal.  I was asked by Andy Kachele  to post the South Park Advisory Committee’s final report with the town meeting information as well. I have highlighted Section IV paragraph C. “At 2020 year end the Committee advised the Selectmen of its support [for the ALT purchase] as well,” for, among other reasons, the fact that “ALT has a proven record of outstanding property management, and would provide professional care of that acreage.”

So what are the downsides of doing what some opponents of the sale have said and putting this deal off? For one thing, if the town votes down this purchase, there will be significant compromise to the land trust’s ability to acquire and preserve further land.  It is not clear that the grant that is  helping to fund the purchase would be granted again. We may well lose the will of the land trust to help with a larger purchase of the entire property. They have said so.

As I mentioned above, land deals are complex and unlikely to be completed quickly, so waiting for a deal leaves the town exposed. There may well be proposals to develop this land, and the property is subject to an application under statute 8-30g, which would allow a developer to avoid planning and zoning regulations. Even the land use ordinance could potentially be circumvented by such an 8-30g application.  However, no one in the state has ever made an application to develop preserved land by a group like the land trust, but they have for town-owned land.

Since 2008, this property has been a subject of conflict in the town. This is not political. For the first time the town can take concrete action to settle the fate of this property. We can preserve this beautiful and sensitive piece of land. Please join your board of selectmen, Citizens for Easton, the Aspetuck Land Trust and your neighbors and vote to preserve South Park.  Learn the facts on the town website under “Town Meetings.” Encourage your friends to do the same.  When you read publications or leaflets in your mailbox, please think critically about what they say. We want to preserve the beauty of Easton and we are. That is what is important.

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