Open space advocates sell preservation as a money saver
Lyme — More than 200 residents descended on the field outside Town Hall on Wednesday, armed with camping chairs, to fight for the restoration of a million-dollar goal for open space savings.
It was a polite, oftentimes jovial, push.
The quintessentially New England annual budget meeting was held outside under the sun, a coronavirus pandemic-era ode to giving townspeople enough space to safely gather so they could decide the town's future without letting the Board of Selectmen or Board of Finance do it for them.
On the agenda was the town budget, of course, but also various issues important to the day-to-day management of the town and its prospects for the future. Good-natured calls for speakers to talk louder or put the microphones closer to their masked faces were interspersed with laughter, not the least of which came from discussion about cemetery savings being held in a STIF — short-term investment fund.
But the issue that drew the most reaction involved a resolution to reverse a finance board decision that would have cut back planned savings for open space from $1 million to $500,000. That resolution ultimately was approved by a show of hands, with 202 in favor and 10 opposed.
First Selectman Steve Mattson opened the meeting with appreciation for the atypically large crowd.
By comparison, only 84 Lyme residents showed up at the polls earlier this month for a machine vote on the $34.87 million Lyme-Old Lyme schools budget. There are 1,979 registered voters in town.
"This is our town meeting form of governance at its best, where people make the major decisions of the town," Mattson said.
Lyme, with about half its land mass preserved through various combinations of state, local and private funding, has prioritized open space in planning documents going back to at least the 1960s.
More recently, a large influx of people seeking a diversion from pandemic isolation have taken to the town's many hiking and walking trails.
But amid the tangible and practical aspects of all the preserved land that makes Lyme unique in the state, Mattson told the crowd that the issue before them was "a philosophical difference of opinion" on how much the town should save for future land purchases.
The resolution under consideration at the town meeting requires the finance board to "take all measures" to reach $1 million in the 2022-23 budget plan, and replenish the fund "in a timely fashion" whenever it is used to purchase property.
Mattson was emphatic that the language means the goal will be reached by this time next year.
"We will use next year's budget that you will vote on next May to add the rest of the money to reach the million-dollar goal," Mattson said.
The selectmen had allocated enough funds in their proposed budget this time around to bring the account to $1 million before the finance board cut the allotment to $75,000.
The selectmen for years had been operating with a $1 million goal in mind for the open space reserve fund, according to Mattson. It stands at about $500,000 currently.
Finance board Chairman Dan Hagan stood up to give the opposing philosophical viewpoint. He characterized it not as an objection to open space, but as a fundamental belief that the town is holding too much taxpayer money in reserve.
The unassigned fund balance — known as the rainy day fund — was at $2.4 million at the end of the last fiscal year in June, according to the town audit. Eight other accounts used to save for specific purposes — including open space and certain capital projects, as well as smaller funds like the cemetery and affordable housing funds — totaled $1.6 million.
Hagan emphasized the budget for the upcoming fiscal year will pay off the debt on the library and Town Hall campus project, leaving the town in "fantastic" financial shape.
"We certainly don't need to hoard your money, be it for whatever purchase," he said.
Lyme Land Trust board member and forest ecologist Anthony Irving told the assembled voters that finance and open space preservation go hand in hand.
Describing the purchase of land as a one-time expense, he said it ultimately contributes to the town's relatively low tax rate.
"Open space requires a minimum in town services and it doesn't raise school costs, unlike with residential development, which is a forever cost for the town," he said. "Open space preservation saves the town money over the long run."
Yet open space can also complement efforts to diversify residential offerings, according to some proponents.
Resident Tina West, a member of the town's Affordable Housing Commission since 1992, started a conversation about how officials can use negotiations to carve out space for affordable housing.
Mattson said the Young property is an example of a purchase that resulted in more preserved land as well as a separate building lot that could be used for affordable housing. The 82-acre Philip E. Young Preserve, on the east side of Gungy Road, was dedicated in 2012.
West said maintaining $1 million in the open space reserve fund is important because it gives the town flexibility to move quickly on the purchase of land that might otherwise go to another bidder.
Currently, 13 houses in town, or about 1%, qualify as affordable housing, according to the Affordable Housing Commission's website. The federal government considers housing affordable when the people living there spend 30% of their income or less on it.
"Those of us who support diversity in town and want to see it done in a way we think makes sense, should support a million dollars in the open space fund," West said.
A separate vote on the $10.9 million 2021-22 budget passed unanimously. The finance board immediately following the meeting voted to keep the tax rate flat at 19.95 mills for the third year in a row.
Voters also approved switching the town treasurer position from elected to appointed, putting the mooring permit process online, and authorizing the town to take ownership of the North Lyme Cemetery.
Mattson said after the meeting that, "all things being good," he anticipates officials should be able to keep the tax rate unchanged for up to five more years.
"Mr. Hagan is correct," he said. "We are in a very good financial state and we hope to stay there."