Chelsea Botanical Garden plans officially dead

Lily Brown of Colchester enjoys the Norwich Memorial Rose Garden on June 19, 2017. The popularity of the rose garden led officials to consider having another garden in Mohegan Park.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Lily Brown of Colchester enjoys the Norwich Memorial Rose Garden on June 19, 2017. The popularity of the rose garden led officials to consider having another garden in Mohegan Park. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Norwich – A nearly quarter-century effort to create Chelsea Botanical Garden in Mohegan Park has finally come to the end of a very windy road.

The City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve the "Mutual Release and Lease Termination Agreement" with words such as "full and final settlement" and "complete mutual release," signaling the end of the proposed project.

Chelsea Gardens Foundation officials met behind closed doors with the City Council on April 16 and announced publicly the group’s intention to give up its 75-year lease of 80 acres in Mohegan Park north of the city’s Rose Garden, cancel plans to develop a botanical garden and disband the organization.

The lease termination agreement will be signed by City Manager John Salomone and Chelsea Gardens Foundation President Hugh Schnip. Termination will take effect May 31.

The project had progressed slowly over the past two decades, with grants and donations funding environmental studies, design drawings for planning permits and architectural plans. The master plan was estimated to cost $80 million, with the first phase including classroom space, a visitor’s center, butterfly pavilion and walking trails at $20 million.

But the project received strong criticism and a legal challenge in spring of 2015, when the group clear cut six acres of trees in the hopes of showing the area to potential donors. Neighbors, opponents and some city officials blasted the foundation for cutting trees without having funds in place to do the actual development.

Although the lawsuit was dismissed by a New London Superior Court judge, negative publicity and continued criticism “poisoned the well” of potential grants and donations, pro-bono foundation attorney Theodore Phillips wrote in a press release issued April 16.

“A lot of time was put into it by a lot of people,” Schnip said Monday prior to the council meeting. “What are you going to do? You can’t keep going on when you keep getting pushback.”

Phillips told the council that after 20 years of work, the project “hit a brick wall” and could not move forward.

The original lease, approved by the City Council on Dec. 1, 1994, gave control of the 80 acres to the Chelsea Gardens Foundation for 75 years, with support from the City Council “for the positive impact it was expected to have on the quality of life for city residents and the potential to attract visitors to the city.”

The agreement approved Monday calls for the foundation to turn over numerous land surveys, plans, studies and documents associated with the project to the city. The foundation had received a combined total of $262,949 in grants from the city from 1998 to 2011 from the Sachem Fund, Community Development Block Grant and the Mohegan Park Improvements and Development Committee.

Alderman Samuel Browning said he would oppose efforts to revive the project, and said if anyone did come forward with $20 million, they should be steered toward a taxpaying economic development project.

Aldermen expressed mixed opinions about the demise of the project, with Alderwoman Stacy Gould and Alderman William Nash saying they regretted that the project could not come to fruition. They thanked Chelsea Gardens Foundation officials for their years of efforts on the project.

"I was supporter of this project from day one, and its possible I would still be a supporter," Mayor Peter Nystrom said.

Nystrom said the engineering and architectural plans have a value of about $250,000 and might not be a total loss. He said having another garden in Mohegan Park is not unreasonable, especially with the popularity of the nearby rose garden.

The committee, which oversees Mohegan Park activities, last week discussed whether to replant trees in the six-acre area. A report from two tree experts said the land has started to regrow with a good mixture of hardwoods. The committee will plant pine trees and perhaps other native trees in areas used as an access road that has remained barren.

Committee Chairwoman Beryl Fishbone asked Phillips Monday if there was any extra money that could be provided to the committee. Phillips responded there was no funding remaining, and directors of Chelsea Gardens contributed funds to facilitate the termination.

c.bessette@theday.com

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