State will buy 201 acres in Groton for open space despite town opposition

Groton — The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is buying 201 acres north of Interstate 95 to preserve for open space, a purchase the Groton Town Council opposed two years ago.

The Groton Open Space Association had sought Town Council support to buy a slightly smaller portion of the same property in 2014, and the council refused, saying Groton couldn’t afford to tie up more land that could be used for potential economic development.

The land, owned by Tilcon Inc., is south of Gold Star Highway, north of Interstate 95 and west of Rogers Road. It borders town-managed open space on Flanders Road and is adjacent to a large property north of the Mystic Marriott.

Mayor Bruce Flax said Monday he’s upset that the Groton Open Space Association sought a letter of support for the purchase, was told no, and asked the state to buy the property anyway. He’s also displeased that the state, having been told the town didn’t support the purchase, went forward and said nothing to town officials about it, he said.

“We’re $1.2 billion in the red (at the state) and they’re using taxpayer money when the town government said they don’t support it,” Flax said. He added that he supports open space, but believes it's inappropriate to take the property off the tax rolls forever.

Joan Smith, president of the Groton Open Space Association, said Monday that the sale is between the state and the seller, not the association.

The state has a purchase-and-sales agreement on the property, with a closing date to be determined, said Dennis Schain, spokesman for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The Groton Open Space Association will assist in managing the property, he said. If the purchase goes forward as planned, the property would allow passive recreation, which means no motorized vehicles. The department would consider whether to allow mountain biking at a future time.

Schain declined to discuss the purchase price, but Smith said the association provided $117,750 toward the total $785,000 price. The association will handle tasks like trail work and removal of invasive species, but the state will own the land and make decisions about use of the property, she said.

The property includes a rare 40-acre pitch pine ridge forest, an ecosystem the state wishes to protect, she said. “The benefits of protecting open space I think outweigh the costs in this case," Smith said.

Tilcon Inc. was billed $29,560.15 for taxes on the property under the current grand list, according to tax records.

Schain said the state discussed the Tilcon property with the town.

 "We've been working through the town manager and there's very attractive conservation features and natural resources on that property, including a very outstanding pitch pine forest, which creates habitat for numerous species," he said.

Schain said Groton officials also offered the Tilcon property among its possible swaps to provide open space so it could build a middle school on the Merritt property. The Merritt property had been purchased for recreation, so the town had to offer a comparable property to the state to develop the Merritt property as a school. The town ultimately offered a different property for the swap. 

Town Manager Mark Oefinger said he had conversations with the state about the Tilcon property after a surveyor came to the town asking about it many months ago. But Oefinger said he didn't expect the state to acquire the property without formally notifying the town or communicating why it would take that step.

"If you know that somebody is against something and you really feel this strongly that we should be buying it, then at least come down and talk to us," Oefinger said.

Councilors learned about the deal about six weeks ago when a town official got a flier from the open space association asking for money to support the purchase, Flax said.

Councilors are seeking a meeting with state officials and said they want a voice on any restrictions placed on the property if the sale goes through.

The state purchased the land under the Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust program, created by the Legislature in 1986. The program is the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s main program for acquiring land to expand parks, forests and other open spaces.

The Groton Open Space Association initially wanted to apply for a grant to buy the land through the Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program two years ago. When it couldn't go ahead because the council wouldn't back it, the association alerted the state that the heritage trust program was a possibility. The state then proceeded.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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