Board Takes Up Land Purchase Issue
By DIANE STRUZZI
Courant Staff Writer
August 9 2006
SIMSBURY -- In a pivotal but preliminary step, the board of selectmen will decide tonight whether to move forward on preserving 424 acres of land owned by the Ethel Walker School, acreage that was once slated to include a subdivision of luxury homes.
The main issue - how much the town is willing to spend to buy the land.
In June, the school and the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization, reached an agreement, offering to sell development rights to the town for $13.85 million. The trust committed to raise about $2.75 million, leaving the town's share at about $11.1 million.
But some on the boards of selectmen and finance question the particulars of the proposed acquisition. Deputy First Selectman Joel Mandell said Tuesday he believes the $11.1 million is too much and he won't endorse it. Paul Henault, chairman of the board of finance, said he has many concerns about the land purchase, namely whether it is fair market price and fits within the six-year capital plan. John Hampton, who sits on the board of selectmen, said whatever resolution is put forward, preservation must be guaranteed.
About the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that the issue will be put to voters come November.
"I think it's a great piece of land," First Selectman Thomas Vincent said, adding that bonding is one of several options to raise funds for the property. "Right now we're doing everything we can to conserve it and give an opportunity for voters to make that choice."
Tonight's special meeting of the board of selectmen will be at 6 p.m. at Eno Memorial Hall Auditorium on Hopmeadow Street.
The land in question sits along Bushy Hill Road, includes forests, trails and wetlands and is at the heart of other undeveloped landscape. The acreage at the school also includes an aquifer that provides drinking water for Simsbury, Granby and East Granby, according to Susan Masino, a founding member of Keep the Woods, a local grass-roots organization that is supporting a petition that wants to bring the issue to referendum.
Masino said she is disappointed that it has taken so long for some town officials to make themselves aware of the issues involved with the land.
Vincent and Mandell say the town is moving forward. To have a referendum on the November ballot, the board of selectmen must approve a resolution that would go to the board of finance. The finance board would review it and send it back to the board of selectmen to approve language that would appear on a referendum. That all must be done by Sept. 6.
"There's a price and we have to decide where the threshold of pain is," said Dave Ryan, who sits on the board of selectmen. "And our decision, interestingly, is to make the best choice we can for an option for the residents to vote on. We're not passing on the actual expenditure itself."
If the town decides to commit to less than $11.1 million, that could place the project at "serious risk," according to Melissa Spear, project manager at the Trust for Public Land, who met with Vincent Tuesday and said the organization has a good relationship with him and the town.
Kim Gilman, public affairs manager with the organization, said it doesn't appear that the land will be available for a lower price. Gilman said the town's total share will likely decrease to $10.6 million if $467,000 in state grants can be used to defray the cost.
"The current opportunity for the town to conserve the Ethel Walker land may be the last one before a development option is pursued," Gilman said. "We have faith that the property deserves conservation and the citizens want to conserve the land and see it as a worthy investment."
Contact Diane Struzzi at email@example.com.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant