School Offers Open Space Deal
By JENNIFER GROGAN
Courant Staff Writer
June 23 2006
SIMSBURY -- A private school that once considered building luxury homes on part of its 424 acres of woods is offering to sell development rights to the town for $13.85 million.
The town has until November to decide on the offer, made by the Ethel Walker School for a parcel it owns on Bushy Hill Road. Town officials have long had an interest in preserving the property as open space.
"This is the best option," Susanna Jones, head of the school, said Thursday. "We're very excited that after years of working on this, it looks as though the preservation of this large piece of property is a real possibility."
The land, which is on Bushy Hill Road, includes forests, trails and wetlands. The school allows the public to use it for recreational activities, such as hiking and cross-country skiing, and there is an equestrian course on the property for students.
The agreement was negotiated by the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization, and announced on Wednesday.
Last October, town officials asked the trust to act as a facilitator for the negotiations with Ethel Walker after the two sides were unable to work out a price for the development rights. By then, the school had proposed plans to develop the woodlands into a luxury subdivision.
"We are pleased that the Trust for Public Land and the school have agreed on a plan for consideration by the town and we look forward to further discussions, as TPL will be discussing the acquisition program with our boards and commissions as we further consider this possible acquisition," First Selectman Thomas Vincent said Thursday.
The trust will oversee a fundraising campaign to raise $2.75 million of the purchase price, leaving the town's share at about $11.1 million. Part of the cost could be paid for through state grants, including two already approved grants for $467,000 to protect 120 acres of the property.
"It's a big investment on the part of the town but there's one opportunity to do this," said Melissa Spear, project manager for the trust. "Once a piece of property is developed, it can no longer serve as open space. There are demonstrable economic benefits to having well-planned open space and it does enhance the livability of a town if they are willing and able to make that investment."
Kevin Kane, finance director, said the board of selectmen and board of finance now have to decide whether to approve authorizing the expenditure and a plan for funding the purchase. If they decide to move forward, a special town meeting will be held, followed by a referendum.
Residents could also petition for a referendum if the boards do not support the project. A referendum is required when a project's proposed cost exceeds 3 percent of the town's current operating budget, or roughly $2.3 million.
The school began examining uses for the land in the late 1980s. Its board of trustees wanted to find a way to more effectively use the property to fulfill the school's mission of educating girls in grades 6 to 12 and preparing them for college.
Jones said that there were negotiations with the town about three years ago to sell the development rights but the two sides could not agree on a purchase price. The school presented plans for a 120-unit subdivision of $1 million and $2 million homes in the spring of 2005.
"We always wanted to preserve the land but the board of trustees, in good conscience and in fulfillment of its responsibilities to the school, had to look at the school's fiduciary interests," Jones said.
Development plans continued even as the trust began to broker the conservation agreement and a local grass-roots group, Keep the Woods, circulated a petition to keep the land in its natural state. But Jones now says the $13.85 million price tag is enough so that the land can be kept as open space and the board can meet its fiduciary responsibility, while possibly making a significant contribution to the school's endowment. The board has not formally decided how to use the money if the town agrees to the purchase.
Both sides said they were pleased with the agreement, but voters will have the final say. Susan Masino, founding member of Keep the Woods, said she is confident that the town will support the conservation effort.
"It will be our legacy that we protected the water and this valuable piece of open space for the future," she said.
Contact Jennifer Grogan at Jgrogan@courant.com.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant