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Board Denies Funding For Land

Action Will Keep Question Of Appropriating $11.1 Million To Preserve Property Off Ballot

By DIANE STRUZZI
Courant Staff Writer

August 16 2006

SIMSBURY -- The board of finance on Tuesday night rejected a proposal to appropriate $11.1 million to preserve 420-plus acres owned by the Ethel Walker School, ending the chance of putting the question to voters on the November ballot.

The five board members also defeated a proposal to set the appropriation figure at $5 million.

No one would make a motion to consider $8.5 million, even though finance board Chairman Paul Henault urged them saying it would allow the issue to move forward.

"My feeling is unless we're willing to stand by the agreement made by the Trust for Public Land for $13.85 million, there's no point in spending any more time on this," said board member Nick Mason.

The agreement between the school and the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization, offered to sell the town developments rights for $13.85 million. The trust committed to raising 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 the town can use $467,000 in state grants.

More than 80 people packed Eno Memorial Hall. The overwhelming majority of those who spoke favored the $11.1 million proposal going to the voters.

The price tag on the land is not the issue, Diane Nash told the board. "Tonight, it's the right of the voters to determine should we preserve this parcel."

Last week, the board of selectmen sent the $11.1 million recommendation for the finance board's review. The recommendation called for the appropriation to go toward the purchase of development rights, conservation easements or an outright purchase of the land that sits on Bushy Hill Road and the acquisition of three additional parcels owned by the school on Longview Drive and Stratton Brook Road.

Before the public spoke Tuesday, Henault explained his concerns about the proposal, saying it would affect future capital projects, push the town's debt policy to exceed 7 percent and be out of line when compared with the town share in other land acquisitions.

He said while he did not support the $11.1 million, he did not believe the school would turn its back and develop the property, especially since the acreage includes an aquifer that provides drinking water to Simsbury and surrounding towns.

Mason and board member Anita Mielert supported the $11.1 million proposal. Board members Peter Askham and Kevin North said they had concerns about the town financing that figure. Board member Candace Fitzpatrick was not at the meeting.

Melissa Spear, project manager at the Trust for Public Land, told board members that the organization completed an appraisal of the property and received a preliminary report Tuesday. She said for development rights, the appraisal estimate was $12.1 million and to purchase the land outright that number would increase to $12.8 million.

The issue may still go to a special referendum if Keep the Woods, a local grass-roots organization, is successful in its separate action to bring the question to voters with the $11.1 million price tag. After Tuesday's meeting, Susan Masino, a founding member of the organization, said the group would move forward. She said she was disappointed by the finance board's decision and believes the discussion should focus on creative financing options.

"The best thing is to work on the financing," she said, "and not be talking about the price."

Contact Diane Struzzi at dstruzzi@courant.com.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant