Land trust looking for town to close on $1.65 million deal
East Lyme — The East Lyme Land Trust is looking for public support to help fund the $1.65 million purchase of more than 120 acres off Hathaway Road, including roughly 3,000 feet of waterfront on Pattagansett Lake and the Pattagansett River.
The land trust's president, Ronald Luich, said the organization is under contract to buy the property as it works to secure funding from various agencies, including the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the town.
An informational session will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the East Lyme Senior Center.
The 152-acre property is being sold by Hathaway Farms LLC out of Southport, N.C., according to the assessor's database. Members of the venture include the wife and children of former East Lyme Land Trust board member Steve Harney. He was involved in selling 166 acres of forestland at the headwaters of the Niantic River to a preservation organization in 2017 for $1.7 million, according to The Day archives.
He said he stepped down from the land trust board to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest related to the Hathaway property.
Harney on Tuesday said Hathaway Farms received a $4 million offer from a developer for the whole piece of land. But Harney's preference is to "at least offer the taxpayers the opportunity to protect and preserve" the 120 acres, he said.
"Primarily the fork in the road is: Does the community want to protect their No. 1 priority preservation piece, as opposed to having it developed," he said.
The property was identified in the 2009 and 2019 East Lyme Plan of Conservation and Development as the first priority in terms of open space acquisition. The document, which must be updated every 10 years per state statute, provides an ongoing framework for the town's planning decisions.
Regarding the portion of the 152-acre property not being offered to the land trust, Harney said 10 to 11 lots have been sold to a residential builder and about 20 acres remain.
"I've always taken a different look at development," he said. "You can protect a majority of the property and still develop the property."
A May 6 letter from DEEP Commissioner Katherine S. Dykes to Luich confirmed the $400,000 grant from the state was approved based on factors including the property's value as a natural and recreational resource, its ability to help mitigate climate change and its availability to the public. The agency also used appraisals conducted in accordance with federal standards and paid for by the land trust to ensure the sales price is fair.
The grant requires a match from the town. There is currently $300,000 in the town's open space account, the land trust said.
Luich said the conversations between First Selectman Mark Nickerson and the land trust's attorney, Paul Geraghty, have indicated there are grants available to the town that could help mitigate the purchase price.
Nickerson and Geraghty did not return calls for comment by press time.
Art Carlson, a land trust board member and chairman of the East Lyme Commission for the Conservation of Natural Resources, said the property could end up costing the town somewhere "in the ballpark" of $1 million. He emphasized the number is fluid and that there are still other sources of funding that may be available.
If the town had to borrow $1 million for the purchase, he estimated the average taxpayer would pay about $5 per year for 20 years.
Carlson emphasized that protecting the quality and quantity of drinking water in the area is the No. 1 reason to conserve the aquifer-heavy property as open space.
The area is covered by the public water system, which predominantly serves the southern and central portions of town south of Boston Post Road and extends north along Route 161, according to the town. Seven wells pump water to two above-ground storage tanks.
Preserving the property also would provide recreational opportunities, establish a forest block and preserve important elements related to geology, history and biodiversity.
Carlson said it's all based on one word: science. That is what's behind keeping water safe to drink, promoting mental and physical health, and even calculating the value of the open space to taxpayers.
He pointed to more than 20 years of data from Cost of Community Services, like one published in a 2020 document from the American Farmland Trust and the state Department of Agriculture that found farmland and other open spaces generate more public revenue than they require in municipal services.
"So by preserving open space, we actually can reduce your tax rate," Carlson said. "Simply put, this 120 acres, how many snow plows does it require? How many police? How many teachers?"
He estimated there could be 70 homes built on the property if it is subdivided.
A study in the town of Lebanon showed that for each dollar of property tax generated by farm and open land, only 20 cents is required in municipal services. That was compared to residential land, which required $1.15 in municipal services.
Kevin Seery, the deputy first selectman and Republican candidate for first selectman, reiterated that the impact of 70 new homes could be significant in terms of educating that many children, providing police and fire support, and bringing in water.
He noted there are several other developments going on in town and said he does not want to "overburden our resources."
He acknowledged there's been talk about the potential for public well sites on the Hathaway property, but said that's a large, separate conversation for the future.
"I think this needs to be vetted with the town, but I think it's a great opportunity," he said of the property purchase.
Camille Alberti, the Democratic candidate for first selectman, said she "will definitely support this project going forward" because its long been a preservation priority for the town and it protects water quality.
She said, if elected first selectmen, she would sit down with the sellers "and try to reach an agreement for acquiring at least 120 acres of that open space."
She said local open space savings, state grants and federal pandemic relief funds are some possible sources of funding. "I suspect very little of it would have to be borrowed," she said.
Harney, Alberti and Seery all pointed to Thursday's informational session as an important way to find out more about the project. Luich said Geraghty, the land trust attorney, will be at the informational session to answer questions.
The pending contract is in the land trust's name, according to Luich. If the town decides to take over, it will make the final purchase.
Harney did not specify how long he is willing to wait for the town to make a decision on the purchase, but said it will depend whether or not he feels the sale is "moving in the right direction" once the public weighs in.
"If the will of the people is there, this is not a hard deal to close," he said.
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