The sale of open, undeveloped land seldom escapes the attention of neighbors and others who are concerned about the natural environment. And the three parcels with of woodland that the Regional Water Authority (RWA) plans to sell on Beech Street and Pomps Lane in our town is no exception.
Although this land does not drain to Lake Gaillard, a source of public drinking water, the process for selling it is deliberately complex. When it proposes to sell land, RWA is required by law to prepare an evaluation of potential impact that addresses consistency not only with RWA’s land use plan, but also the Town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, the State Plan of Conservation and Development and the regional planning agency’s plan. The evaluation of potential impact also must address environmental and social impacts from a change in land use that include economic considerations, public health and safety as well as other community factors.
On May 5, the Representative Policy Board of the Regional Water District held a public hearing at the 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 a civil engineering firm to determine the development potential of the three parcels. Under current zoning which is R-40, the engineering study concluded that up to 29 lots could be developed on the 60.35 acres based on soil testing for septic systems as required by Connecticut Public Health Code Regulations.
Deep test holes were dug for 30 lots and ground water monitoring tubes installed and monitored Feb. 1 to May 31, 2009. 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 first be offered to the town 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 struggling to balance budgets.
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 would eliminate Natural Resource, Agriculture, Recreation and Estate Residential land use designations and allow the land to be developed as zoned, R-40. That step, incorporated as part of RWA’s application to sell the land, 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 percent 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 percent. 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. More than 3,000 acres of privately owned undeveloped land on drinking water watersheds and aquifers need to be protected.
On May 19, the RPB met at RWA headquarters in New Haven to consider the information presented at the public hearing (go to www.rwater.com for minutes of the meeting). The sale of the 60.35 acres land was unanimously approved. At that meeting the RPB also approved a 15.5 percent increase in residential water rates to support debt service on $47,000,000 bonds to be sold for water system improvements. The public hearing for the rate increase had been held April 28.
So what happens next? The decision of May 19 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 Environmental Protection (DEP), but the town’s right will have priority.
Bear in mind that the condition of the sale does not allow 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, that the town receives notice from RWA, the town will have 90 days in which to exercise its right to purchase the land and an additional 18 months for completing the purchase. Should the town or the state not exercise its right to purchase the land, then RWA may 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 the buyer must take title to the land as is without contingent subdivision approval.
The subdivision approval process will entail a review by the Town’s Inland Wetlands and Land Conservation agency before it reaches the jurisdiction of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Unless there is a zone change or Special Permit requirement, there will be no public hearing by Planning and Zoning. The Inland Wetlands Commission may hold a public hearing if the commission identifies a significant potential impact on existing wetlands.
In the meantime, let’s hope that the town will find a way to purchase the land. If not, we need to carefully consider how the land will be subdivided and what land, if any, will be offered to NBLCT pursuant to open space zoning requirements. And let’s not forget that an additional 109 acres of Class III RWA land lies south and southeast of the reservoir accessible from North Street and Great Hill Road that will, at some point in the future, be offered for sale. That tract deserves our attention well before RWA undertakes a subdivision study of the land.