East Lyme fast-tracks Darrow Pond land buy

A view this week of Darrow Pond in East Lyme looking north.
A view this week of Darrow Pond in East Lyme looking north. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

East Lyme - In the past 20 years, there have been plans to develop the sylvan 301 acres surrounding Darrow Pond into a golf course and a 600-unit retirement community.

But nothing ever happened.

To this day, the Darrow Pond area remains hilly forestland, home to an impressive collection of oak trees.

And now, there is a plan to keep it that way.

The latest and possibly last vision calls for the town to buy the property and preserve most of it as open space.

One-sixth of the parcel - about 50 acres - would be the site for a water tower that would play an integral role in the town's efforts to modernize its water supply.

The town and The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit group, have an agreement with Webster Bank to buy the property for $4.15 million, $400,000 less than the land's assessed value. The trust's involvement also could make the town eligible for grants to help maintain the property.

The town will move toward implementation at 7 p.m. Tuesday, when the Planning Commission meets at Town Hall to discuss approving the plan.

If that occurs, the Board of Selectman will discuss the purchase Wednesday. From there, it would proceed to Board of Finance review, a public hearing, a town meeting and finally a referendum before Labor Day.

It's an opportunity the town should not pass up, said First Selectman Paul Formica. "We can't afford not to do it."

Partners for public space

In May, the Board of Selectmen voted to enter into a partnership with the land trust to buy the property.

Darci Schofield, the group's project manager, said the organization performs title searches, legal work and appraisals associated with the purchase.

The trust would buy the property for $4.15 million, transferring it to the town for the same price after the Oct. 31 closing date.

Formica said the bond for the $4.15 million purchase fits within the town's debt service plan. The plan calls for an appropriation of up to $85,000 for costs associated with financing the bond, he said.

Webster Bank obtained the property in 2008 from Virginia developers Sandler and Sons as part of a stipulated, or "friendly" foreclosure, meaning the owner did not contest the action.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president for public affairs at Webster, said the bank "saw an opportunity to help the East Lyme community."

"We thought we could make a statement and have a positive role in the community," Guenther said.

He said the bank had received interest from the private sector about the property, but he declined to comment on how many inquires were made or who was interested.

Raising support

August stands to be a busy month of debate, coupled with a public relations push by the trust to drum up support for the purchase with tours of the land. A site walk is planned for the public on Aug. 13.

"This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity," Schofield said.

Formica said the town is interested in the property mainly as a site for public water infrastructure.

"It trumps everything," he said.

Earlier this year, residents voted in a referendum to approve a $10.7 million plan to pipe in water from Lake Komomoc, a reservoir owned by New London. Design work is under way.

The plan, dubbed the regional water interconnection, would give the town an ample supply of water, especially during the summer months when residents are usually ordered to conserve water.

Formica said the Darrow Pond rises at one point to a 260-foot elevation, an ideal spot to build a tank to store from 1 million to 1.5 million gallons of water. The height would create for better water pressure.

The property's two wells - dug as part of the planned, but never built, retirement community - also would be at the town's disposal.

"The regional water interconnection will position East Lyme with the water it needs well into the future," Formica said.

If the purchase is approved, the town would use about 50 acres for the tank and well field.

The remaining 250 acres would be preserved as open space suitable for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing, and for wildlife.

"It's one of the more beautiful forests in the state and an important habitat," Schofield said.

If purchased by the town, the Darrow Pond land would complete 3,800 acres of contiguous open space linking Camp Pattagansett, the Yale University-owned Sheffield Scientific School, Ponderosa Park and Nehantic State Forest. It would be among the largest parcels of open space in Connecticut.

No use of the pond, yet

There is, however, a bit of a catch.

The purchase would include the namesake pond, but would not, at this point, allow public access to the water.

Property owners along the water in the Darrow Ridge and Kensington developments hold easements, which restrict public use of the pond. Some of the easements were part of the deeds issued to property owners by developer Jeffrey Torrance, who at one point owned all of the property on Darrow Ridge and the 301 acres the town hopes to buy.

Formica said the trust has held talks with neighbors, but since the town does not yet own the land, East Lyme cannot enter into formal negotiations about access to the pond.

s.chupaska@theday.com

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