At hearing, Groton residents voice support on updated school land swap

Groton — Addressing the Town Council on Tuesday evening, residents expressed overwhelming support and gratitude for an updated land swap that would allow plans for the construction of a new middle school to move forward.

The town seeks to release all legal open-space restrictions on the 35-acre Merritt Property adjacent to Fitch High School. In exchange, it would place comparable restrictions on 20 acres off the end of Colver Avenue, called Boulder Heights, and 38 acres on the King/Kolnaski property at 500 Poquonnock Road.

The town purchased the Merritt Property for $700,000 in 1989, with a restriction that it be used for "conservation, recreation and open space purposes."

But the School Facilities Initiative Task Force found that the Merritt Property would be the best location to build the new middle school, due to the cost savings and opportunities for students that would result from its location next to the high school.

In October 2016, the town and state entered into a memorandum of understanding allowing the Boulder Heights property to be designated for open space in place of the Merritt Property, but many later argued that Boulder Heights was not a site of equal value, hence the addition of the King/Kolnaski property.

Eugenia Villagra, co-chair of Groton Conservation Advocates, on Tuesday noted that the Boulder Heights property alone “was of far less ecological value ... and would have diminished Groton’s open space acreage and set a bad precedent.”

But Villagra was one of nine people to speak in favor of the updated conversion on Tuesday night, along with several who submitted support in written comments. Only one person objected to the trade, on the basis that she voted for the $8 million open space bond referendum in 1988 thinking the Merritt Property would remain open space forever.

A Superior Court judge authorized the removal of restrictions on the Merritt Property in early August but the town still is going through the process with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Town Manager John Burt told The Day that DEEP is drafting updated easement language for the King/Kolnaski property, and that he’s hoping to get approval of the language from the attorney general’s office in the next week or two.

If all goes well, he said, the Town Council will approve the easement language at its Oct. 2 meeting and this yearslong ordeal will be wrapped up.

With “the town’s final action after this hearing, Groton will be able to proceed with the construction of a new middle school without jeopardizing critical state funding, thereby benefiting us all,” said Jessie Stratton, another member of Groton Conservation Advocates.

Richard Dixon, a former town councilor who previously had advocated for adding another parcel in addition to Boulder Heights, complimented town officials for reaching “a perfect win-win” but criticized the vagueness of the process to get here.

“Look toward why this happened at all,” he recommended. “It wasn’t something that should’ve been a surprise.”

As Dixon acknowledged, neither Burt nor any of the nine members of the Town Council were in their respective roles when the initial decision was made on Boulder Heights.

Joan Smith, president of the Groton Open Space Association, said her board “wholeheartedly approved and supported this exchange. We believe it is a fair exchange.”

She cited several benefits to preserving the King/Kolnaski property as open space, such as preventing runoff and drainage into Birch Plain Creek, the potential for a trail involving all of Baker Cove and the value of the “beautiful rocky ridges” and “a very nice wetland.”

e.moser@theday.com

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