Bill allowing new open space tax goes to public hearing

The latest attempt to give towns access to a new source of funds for open space purchases will be the subject of a public hearing in the state legislature’s Planning and Development Committee on Wednesday, with Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno among those planning to testify.

“It makes eminent good sense for the town of Lyme,” he said Tuesday. “Having this conveyance tax would provide for a more level revenue stream for open space purchases.”

The hearing will take place at 10:30 a.m. in Room 2D of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. Before the hearing, supporters of the bill, including Eno and representatives of Audubon Connecticut, will host a news conference to make a case for the measure, which they are calling “Project Green Space.”

This year’s bill is sponsored by state Reps. Linda Orange, D-Colchester, Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Joseph Gresko, D-Stratford.

The bill would allow towns to impose a 1 percent fee on real estate property purchases over $150,000, and to keep those funds in a separate open space account.

Various versions of the bill failed to win approval in previous years, but Stewart Hudson, executive director of Audubon Connecticut, believes the measure will have broader appeal than in past years because it allows funds to be used for stewardship and preservation projects on open space lands, as well as for land purchases.

“It’s a local opportunity and not a requirement,” Hudson said. “Why not have a tool in the toolbox for communities who want to use it?”

Preserving forests and fields as open space, he said, provides areas for recreation and wildlife, helps protect the drinking water supply and enriches real estate values.

“But it’s getting ever harder to pay for open space acquisition,” he said.

Hudson noted that as state funding for open space purchases decreases, providing a new revenue stream becomes essential if the state is to achieve its goal of conserving 21 percent of its land as open space by year 2023. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget proposal, he noted, includes a 50 percent cut in the state’s Community Investment Act, which provides funds for open space purchases.

Among groups who plan to testify against the bill is the Connecticut Association of Realtors. Michael Barbaro, president of the association, said adding a 1 percent tax would add a financial burden some homebuyers cannot afford.

“We’re at the table every day with people who just don’t have enough funds to close,” he said.

Barbaro added that the Realtors group supports efforts to purchase more open space but doesn’t believe this bill provides an appropriate mechanism.

“The bill’s well intentioned. We’re for open space,” he said.

Eno, however, said the bill would help Lyme and other towns that “aggressively plan” open space purchases but can’t fund the entire amount they need out of property tax revenues. Currently the town puts aside about $50,000 per year out of its budget for open space purchases, he said.

Under the bill, he noted, each town would decide whether to adopt an ordinance to levy the buyer’s fee on real estate purchases.

j.benson@theday.com

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