It's About the Land 6-1-2011

Totoket Times June 1, 2011

The North Branford Land Conservation Trust
It's About the land

The sale of undeveloped land seldom escapes the attention of neighbors and others who are concerned about the natural environment. And the three parcels with 60.3 5 acres of woodland that the Regional Water Authority plans to sell on Beech Street and Pomps Lane in our town is no exception. Although this land does not drain to Lake Gailliard, a source of public drinking water, the process for selling it, by law, is complex.

On May 5 the Repsentative Policy Board of the Regional Water District held public hearing at the Stanley T. Williams School on RWA's application at which a number of people spoke either opposed to the sale or to some of its provisions. RWA had hired civil engineering firm to determine the development potential of the three parcels. Under current R-40 zoning, the engineering study concluded that up to 29 lots could be developed on the 60.35 acres based on an evaluation of soils for septic systems as required by Connecticut Public Health Code regulations. A soil scientist delineated wetland soils in the field while a herpetologist examined the habitat for presence/absence of eastern box turtle and wood turtle, species of concern due to declining habitat. At least one of the sites has a vernal pool, the habitat for salamanders. Wood thrush and pileated woodpeckers can be heard and seen on this land as well.

Knowing that the land must be offered to the Town and State and the State (town has priority right of first refusal), those who spoke in opposition to the sale objected to the offering price of $2,115,000 because it is based on two appraisals of the highest and best use of the property. This comes at a time when the Town and the State are trying to balance budjets.

To support the offering price based on single family residential land use, RWA had to amend its 1996 land use plan. RWA’s 1996 land use plan  designated only a small portion of one of the three tracts for residential develop­ment, while the balance was designated for agriculture and natural resource uses. A small area, less than an acre, not far from the intersection of Beech Street and Pomps Lane, had also been set aside for future development of a trail-head parking area. By amending its Land Use Plan, RWA cleared the way for appraising the land according to highest and best use.

If the land is to be kept in its natural state, the town and/or the state will have to purchase the land at the offering price putting up 50% of the purchase price at the time of sale and the balance paid interest free over the next five years, with another five years to pay any remaining balance at market interest rate, but not less than 5%. If the Town chooses to purchase the land in a single payment, the Town may then decide what portion it might reserve as open space and what portion it might plan to use or sell for other purposes. In any case, RWA, according to its "The Land We Need for the Water We Use" program, will use the proceeds to purchase watershed land at other locations.

On May 19, the RPB unanimously approved RWA's application to sell the 60.35 acres. So what happens next? The decision of May 19th began a 45 day appeal period. The appeal period will expire July 6. If no appeal is filed, the Town can expect to receive from RWA an offer to purchase the 60.35 acres of land for $2,115,000. A similar offer will be sent to the Connecticut Department of Environental Protection (DEP), but the town's right will have priority. Bear in mind that the condition of the sale does not alow the Town or the State or any other buyer to pick and choose the parcels they wish to acquire although the town or state could take any portion of the land by eminent domain for a public purpose. From the date thai the To receives notice from RWA, the Town will have 90 day in which to exercise its right to purchase the land and an additional18 months for completing the purchase. Should the town or the state not exercise its right to purchase the land, then RWA will seek sealed or oral bids from the private sector for the land. No bid may be accepted by RWA that is less than the offering price and must take title to the land as is without contingent subdivision approval .

In the meantime, let's hope that the Town will find a way to purchase the land. If not, we need to be vigilant about how the land will be subdivided and what land, if any will be offered to NBLCT pursuant to open space zoning requirements.

An additional l09 acres of Class III RWA land lies south of the reservoir accessible from North Street and Great Hill Road that will, at some point in the next 10 years, be offered for sale. Some of it includes open field surrounded by forest growing on steep sloping land. There are also three vacant houses on the land. Now is the time for us to begin planning how much of this land can be saved for open space. The lesson of Beech Street and Pomps Lane is that we shouldn't be waiting for RWA to undertake "highest and best use" study of the land.

Otto Schaefer
North Branford Land Conservation Trust, Incorporated