Land Deal Might Get On Ballot
By DIANE STRUZZI
August 17 2006
SIMSBURY — Voters might still get a chance to say whether they support the town’s preserving more than 400 acres owned by the Ethel Walker School.
A day after the board of finance rejected a proposal to appropriate $11.1 million toward the effort, some town officials say they are confident that the issue, in some form, will be on the November ballot.
“I have faith that the town boards and commissions can work out arrangements so it’s on the ballot,” First Selectman Thomas Vincent said Wednesday, adding that he is working to come up with “financial answers” to the situation. Vincent declined to elaborate on what the answer might be, but said that it would be similar to a combination of bonds, reserves and grants.
The timing is crucial. To get on the November ballot, the board of selectmen must approve a recommendation that would go to the board of finance, which would then review it. The board of finance can reject the recommendation, modify it or approve it. All of this must be done by Sept. 6.
During a 3½-hour finance board meeting Tuesday night, the board defeated a proposal to appropriate $11.1 million toward the acquisition of the land that is primarily along Bushy Hill Road. It also rejected another proposal that set the figure at $5 million. No one would make a motion to change the appropriation to $8.5 million, even after Chairman Paul Henault urged the board to do so.
On Wednesday, Mark Asmar, a lawyer for Ethel Walker School, said that the school was deeply disappointed by what had happened.
“The board of trustees has a fiduciary responsibility to the school,” he said. “The land is an asset of the school at this time and needs to be monetized to help the endowment fund.”
Asmar said that the school is not going to make a hasty decision about the next step and plans to talk with officials from the school, town, Trust for Public Land, which helped negotiate an agreement on the acquisition, and Keep the Woods, a local grass-roots organization.
The school and the Trust for Public Land negotiated an agreement that offers to sell to the town development rights for $13.85 million. The trust has committed to raise about $2.75 million, leaving the town’s share at about $11.1 million. Asmar said he believes that the $13.85 million is not negotiable but, he said, the school’s board of trustees might have a different view.
Melissa Spear, project manager at the Trust for Public Land, said that the national conservation organization would be holding internal discussions to decide if the project can move forward, especially if the town commits only $8.5 million.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, finance board member Anita Mielert suggested that the town find creative ways to finance the $11.1 million, such as taking $2 million from the town’s reserves and using $4 million earmarked in the capital plan for open space. On Wednesday, she said that she would like to see the board of selectmen prioritize future projects to see how the town could finance the land purchase.
“I’d like to see them urge the board of finance to think of ways to lessen the impact on the taxpayer,” she said.
Selectman John Hampton said that he would like to call a special meeting of the board of selectmen to discuss financing the project and remains confident that the land will be preserved. But, he said, the board of selectmen needs to take the lead and stand up to the board of finance with a plan.
“I want to try and see what we can do to save this,” he said. “I think if we let this decision stand, we are basically making the statement that Simsbury is going off in an irrevocable direction of growth, unhealthy growth.”
Contact Diane Struzzi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant