Group May Help Town Preserve Tract,0,2429649.story

Group May Help Town Preserve Tract

Courant Staff Writer

September 16 2005

SIMSBURY — A national land preservation group says its ability to assist the town in preserving a 450-acre parcel on the Ethel Walker School campus will hinge on whether it can raise sufficient donations.

It will take at least a few weeks – and possibly longer – before the Trust for Public Land can say whether it can enter into an agreement to help the town buy the land, or the development rights to the land, said Tim Northrop, the trust’s state director.

Preserving the property took on a new urgency this spring after Ethel Walker unveiled plans to build a 120-unit subdivision of estate-style homes on the land. The school says it looked to development after it was unable to get a fair price to preserve the parcel, bound roughly by Bushy Hill Road, Woodhaven Drive and Longview Drive.

“The only way you’re going to get this project done is if you combine public and private dollars,” Northrop said. “There’s only so much capacity for public dollars.”

None of the parties has disclosed any dollar figures or named a price. All Northrop will say is that the majority of the funding will have to come from the town of Simsbury.

The possibility of development on the property has struck a nerve in town, prompting the formation of a citizens group to save the land, which is one of the last large untouched parcels in town. It includes wetlands and is a wildlife corridor. Many residents have also long hiked, biked and walked its snaking trails.

The town re-initiated talks with the trust over the past weeks in response to mounting pressure to save the land and has drafted a “memorandum of understanding” outlining an agreement that it hopes the trust will sign. Under the agreement, the trust would purchase the property, or the development rights, and would eventually convey ownership or the development rights to the town. The town would then reimburse the trust for a portion of the preservation costs.

Since the town’s dollar share of the cost is likely to be in the millions, a referendum would be called for, required when a project exceeds 3 percent of the town’s total operating budget, or roughly $200,000 last year. Approvals would also be required by the board of selectmen, board of finance and the planning commission before a sale is final.

Cognizant of the sensitive nature of the property, the school has made several attempts, it says, to sell the land to the town so it could be preserved, but has been dissatisfied with previous offers, and was unable to strike a deal with a land preservation group.

The town has also tried to work with the trust in the past, but could not reach an agreement.

“We’ve always been interested in preservation but the key was to get fair market value,” said Susanna A. Jones, the head of school at Ethel Walker.

The development the school is considering could bring it millions. The school has conceded that that kind of money could help bolster an endowment that has dipped over the past decade.

“They looked at donations, all sorts of things but didn’t get very far,” said Kyle Corkum, a consultant the school hired to look into options for developing the land and present a rough sketch of a development to the neighbors.

Corkum said the possibility still exists that the school would develop part of the property, if the town and the trust can’t come up with a high enough price for the entire parcel.

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant

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