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Town To Vote On Land Purchase

$7 Million Would Be Appropriated For About 330 Acres Owned By Ethel Walker School

By DIANE STRUZZI
Courant Staff Writer

November 3 2006

SIMSBURY -- Voters Tuesday will decide whether the town spends $7 million to acquire and preserve land owned by the Ethel Walker School.

The proposal was approved for a referendum question by the boards of selectmen and finance and is supported by the grass-roots organization Keep the Woods. But after months of public discussion about the acquisition, some residents question why the town is paying so much for the land and want more information about the deal.

The total price of the estimated 420 acres is $13.85 million but the payment is structured over time and will be offset by grants and about $2.75 million that will be raised by the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization.

On Thursday, the town received a $450,000 open space grant from the state, bringing the total grants Simsbury has received for the acquisition to just over $900,000.

The $13.85 million is not "the town's output," Selectman John Romano said. "The money we will get through grants, the Trust for Public Land and donations will reduce the impact to the citizens of Simsbury. That's why I've stayed with this. I think it's the way to go."

Selectman John Hampton agreed, saying the town is at a critical juncture and must choose between uncontrolled sprawl and creative, thoughtful planning. Both he and Romano said they don't see the proposed purchase adversely affecting the town's capital improvement plan.

"I continue to support this initiative," Hampton said. "My overall opinion is invest now or pay later, dearly. This is an investment."

The proposal that voters will be asked to decide Tuesday calls for the town to appropriate $7 million for about 330 acres - $5 million from bonding and $2 million from reserves.

On the March 2007 closing date, the town would set aside $1 million from its reserves as a deposit on the remaining property. That deposit would give the town a conservation easement on the remaining 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 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.

At a special meeting last month, voters overwhelmingly approved setting aside the $1 million from town reserves. But a group of residents concerned that there was not enough disclosure about the land deal circulated a petition in an attempt to require that the issue go to a special referendum. The group collected about 500 signatures, falling short of the approximately 800 signatures needed.

The group is also advocating its position on the local cable-access channel.

"I'm against the purchase of the property," said David C. Balboni, a member of the group that circulated the petition. He said it is fundamentally wrong for officials not to reveal all the information.

Kathy Loomis, another member of the group, said she supports open space acquisition but that the price is too high. She questions the claim that developing the land could hurt the aquifer that runs underneath the property. With about 500 homes above the aquifer now, she questioned how several dozen more could hurt.

"We're being told we must do this to save the water," she said. "It doesn't add up."

But Town Engineer Richard Sawitzke said some of those existing homes are several miles away from the aquifer recharge area and in a much less critical area. There are only about 70 homes in the most critical area of the recharge, he said. If the school moved forward on developing the land, about 48 new homes would be added, a significant increase, Sawitzke said.

Members of Keep the Woods are urging residents with questions to call town officials and review the information. The organization expects to hold a drop-in informational session at Eno Memorial Hall between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday.

Iain Sorrell, a member of the board of trustees at Ethel Walker School, said selling the land would allow the school to increase its endowment. He said the school is not in financial trouble but by increasing its endowment it can perform more competitively. If voters reject the referendum, the school would probably have to take the route of development, he said.

"We've talked with the town for some six years to find ways to preserve the land," he said. "I think this is a one-time opportunity to preserve this land. I think as one gentleman said at a meeting, once it's gone, it's gone. There is no turning back."

Contact Diane Struzzi at dstruzzi@courant.com.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant