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Board Backs Ethel Walker Land Deal



By DIANE STRUZZI
Courant Staff Writer

September 1 2006

SIMSBURY -- In a turnaround from two weeks ago, the board of finance Thursday night approved a financing proposal to acquire 420 acres owned by the Ethel Walker School, a move that will allow voters to decide the issue in November.

The proposal calls for the acquisition and financing to be spread over several years and was approved by the board of selectmen earlier this week. The finance board made one small change, choosing to finance the first part of the deal through a mix of bonding and money from the town's reserves. The board of selectmen had suggested only issuing bonds.

"I feel we have a better deal than we did a few weeks ago," finance board Chairman Paul Henault said after the meeting at town hall. "There are still some things that concern me about this, but it's much more palatable and should be considered by the voters."

Kevin North was the sole finance board member to vote against the financing package. Henault, Peter Askham, Nick Mason and Anita Mielert approved it. Finance board member Candace Fitzpatrick was absent from the meeting. The resolution will now go back to the board of selectmen to set a date for a town meeting.

The total price of the acreage remains $13.85 million. But the payment is structured over time and proposes the town appropriate $7 million for an estimated 330-acre parcel. The finance board recommended appropriating $5 million from bonding and taking $2 million from reserves.

On the March 2007 closing date, the town would set aside $1 million from its reserves as a deposit on about 91 acres of additional property. That deposit would give the town a conservation easement on the property for the next five years and set a purchase price at $3.1 million.

In April 2012, the town would have three options: It could buy all of the property for $3.1 million; it could buy half the property for $2 million and receive an additional two years to purchase the rest of the land; or it could choose not to purchase the property and lose its $1 million deposit. If the town decided to purchase the land, town officials would have to approve the $3.1 million appropriation at that time.

The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization, is committed to raising about $2.75 million toward the acquisition. On Thursday, Melissa Spear, project manager at the trust, said the preservation effort has already generated about $775,000 in pledges.

"We're extremely happy to have won the recommendation of the board of finance," Spear said after the meeting. "We see this as a great opportunity to start moving forward on the project."

The board of trustees at Ethel Walker School must still approve the proposal. Iain Sorrell, a member of the school's board of trustees who attended the meeting, said while there are still details the trustees are discussing, the finance board's action is a "stepping stone toward a final resolution."

For residents who supported the land acquisition and followed the series of public discussions the town has held over the last several weeks, the finance board's move was a relief.

"We're excited to move onto the referendum and fundraising," said Susan Masino of the grass-roots organization Keep the Woods, which supports preservation of the land.

Contact Diane Struzzi at dstruzzi@courant.com.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant