Land Preservation's Price Weighed
Officials To Discuss Issue Tonight
By DIANE STRUZZI
Courant Staff Writer
August 15 2006
SIMSBURY -- An emotional debate about town preservation of 420 acres owned by Ethel Walker School centers on price.
That issue is likely to be the main topic tonight when board of finance members discuss the proposed land acquisition. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at Eno Memorial Hall on Hopmeadow Street.
Last week, the board of selectmen recommended the town appropriate $11.1 million toward purchase of the land primarily along Bushy Hill Road that includes forest, trails and wetlands. The figure would mirror an agreement negotiated between the school and the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization. The agreement offers to sell development rights to the town for $13.85 million.
The trust has committed to raise about $2.75 million, leaving the town's share at about $11.1 million. The town's share could decrease to $10.6 million if $467,000 in state grants can be used to defray the cost.
But some on the boards of selectmen and finance believe the fair market value is lower. Last week, the board of selectmen initially considered $8.5 million but chose not to support it after hearing from audience members.
Town officials have an "acquisition proposal" dated last month that estimates a purchase of a combination of development rights, as well as acquiring the land outright, would cost about $11 million. The bulk of the land, about 313 acres, was appraised at an estimated $8.5 million.
Paul Henault, chairman of the board of finance, said he will not support the $11.1 million figure.
"I've got concerns with how this fits into our six-year capital plan and what projects will be pushed aside because of this," he said. "It just doesn't fit. What made sense with the original proposal of the $8.5 million was, OK, here's what the town thinks we can afford. The Trust for Public Land said they'll kick in additional funds. We add that and get to $11.25 million. ... That is something that is a legitimate request to voters of Simsbury."
The board of finance could reject the board of selectmen's recommendation. It could also modify or approve it for referendum in November.
Finance board member Anita Mielert said she supports the $11.1 million, adding that sending any other number forward would destroy the agreement. Finance board member Nick Mason said he will support that price but doesn't want to bond the full amount. He wants to see if the town can secure some creative financing, such as grants. He added that if that appropriation was approved, the town would be exceeding its 7 percent debt policy guideline.
The issue is whether the town has "the stomach ... for doing a couple points over that 7 percent limit," he said.
Even First Selectman Thomas Vincent agreed the land preservation effort might mean future capital projects would have to be curtailed.
But, he said, "the seller has a price and it may not be equal to the appraisal and that's their right as a seller."
Officials from the school and the Trust for Public Land say the school substantially reduced its initial asking price. Mark Asmar, a lawyer for the school, said they had discussed the property with a national land developer and, if 100 lots were approved, the school could receive about $21 million for the land. The school settled on $13.85 million in discussions with the Trust for Public Land.
Asmar said the school will work with the town, the Trust for Public Land and Keep the Woods, a local grass-roots organization, to look for alternative sources of funding.
Most involved still believe a compromise can be reached, including Henault.
"It's in the best interest of Ethel Walker and the town. We're a community," he said. "I'd prefer not to see homes up there and I think they would, too. But it has to be something that's reasonable. It can't be based on emotion."
Contact Diane Struzzi at email@example.com.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant