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Stonington is not listening to residents, again

You would think that the recent win by residents who successfully petitioned and overturned by referendum a decision to provide tax breaks for an affordable housing project in downtown Pawcatuck would have been a lesson for Stonington leaders to listen up.

Apparently not.

First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough recently told The Day that residents from the area of Al Harvey Road, who have collected 286 names on a petition calling for transparency in a town-brokered land conservation deal, need to make a "leap of trust."

No, the residents, who say they have been unable to get answers about proposed hunting on the conserved land, need a public forum to air their concerns. They want more than a leap of trust. They want answers and they want to be heard.

For goodness sakes, give them a hearing.

At issue is a somewhat complicated deal to preserve 250 acres of land near Al Harvey Road, a conservation plan that everyone seems to agree is good for the town and especially good for those who live in that charming, rural corner of the town.

The deal is being organized by the Trust for Public Land, which has a $1.15 million purchase option that expires at the end of February.

The town's finance board has committed $300,000 of its $375,000 open space fund. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would contribute $580,000, and Aquarion Water Co. would put in $230,000.

A 100-acre parcel of the forest eventually would be conveyed to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the remaining 150 acres would go to Avalonia Land Conservancy.

It's the federal piece that worries the neighbors, who say they have been unable to get answers from the Fish and Wildlife Service about details of the hunting they suggest will be allowed on the 100 acres.

To add weight to their objections, a group of residents worried about the hunting has pledged at least $600,000 toward the purchase, replacing the Fish and Wildlife Service's share, as well as adding other money for future expenses.

The ad-hoc group of neighbors asking for more transparency in the deal is calling itself the Al Harvey Road Conservancy.

Chesebrough, who cites the complications of the deal, says the Fish and Wildlife Service told her it has never had a public hearing before an acquisition. And yet a representative of the agency told The Day that a pre-acquisition hearing is not routine but possible.

This is where the first selectwoman needs to do her job and insist that the Fish and Wildlife Service send a delegate to attend a public forum the town should hold on the deal.

If she needs more leverage than the $300,000 the town is contributing, she should reach out to U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and tell him to have the Fish and Wildlife Service come to town and explain to the hundreds of residents who have complained just what kind of hunting is being contemplated for the land town taxpayers will help buy.

And if the agency can't do that, then there ought to be a conversation about using the private donations that have been pledged, if that means the Fish and Wildlife Service would go away and hunting would be off the table for good.

I know the Fish and Wildlife Service does not allow hunting on much of the land it controls. I'm not sure if hunting for this 100-acre piece makes sense or not.

But if it is being contemplated on land that the town is helping to buy, the details of what is being planned need to be shared with the taxpayers who are picking up a share of the bill. The neighbors have very reasonable questions to pose.

It would be better to listen now and make the deal a collaboration with public participation, rather than risk the kind of upset that followed the decision to subsidize affordable housing in Pawcatuck without listening enough to what the neighbors had to say.

That didn't end well for town leaders.

This is the opinion of David Collins. 


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