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Old Lyme open space deal falls through

Old Lyme — An Open Space Commission plan to purchase about 35 acres of forest land off Whippoorwill Road for $400,000 has fallen to the wayside.

The purchase has been touted by the commission as a way to expand access to the adjacent Ames Open Space trail system and beyond. A hallmark of the plan was the use of an existing shared driveway to get to a parking lot and entrance area with the potential to make the area more conducive to those with disabilities. The property, composed of two parcels, is part of the five-lot Woods at Whippoorwill subdivision.

Open Space Commission Co-Chairman Evan Griswold in a press release announced efforts "have not been successful and have concluded." In a phone interview, he blamed restrictions written into the subdivision's foundational documents — or bylaws — that were "difficult to overcome."

The Board of Selectmen in September authorized First Selectman Tim Griswold to sign a sales agreement conditioned upon public approval at a town meeting. The Board of Finance and Planning Commission both unanimously agreed to send the matter to voters in October, but the town meeting never materialized.

Despite the unanimous vote, the finance board meeting vote included resistance from Chairman David Kelsey, who objected on procedural grounds and because he said he didn't have enough information to determine if the commission was being taken advantage of in its negotiations. He said his personal preference was to hold off on a vote, but he deferred to the board's motion.

Evan Griswold and Co-chairwoman Amanda Blair have said the funds would come from a $418,000 reserve fund set aside for preservation purchases. They were hopeful a grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection would cover half the cost so the town will only have to use $200,000 of its reserves. In the meantime, the property owner, Steven Ames, agreed to provide the town a $200,000, two-year loan based on current interest rates, they said.

Evan Griswold said the deal fell apart because it turned out the commission needed permission from neighbors to waive the restrictions that would otherwise require any buyers to use the lots for residential purposes only. But he said the only neighbors currently in the subdivision objected to the idea of turning the road into public access for the trail system.

Evan Griswold did not identify the neighbors, but the owners of two parcels in the immediate area are identified in assessor's records as Tammy and Joe Tinnerello and a limited liability company with which they are associated.

Tammy Tinnerello referred a request for comment to the couple's New London-based attorney, Michael S. Bonnano. In a written statement, he said the Tinnerellos initially supported the idea of having open space next to their home — but they were surprised to find the sales agreement between the subdivision owner and the Town of Old Lyme included provisions that violated the bylaws drafted by the subdivision's owner.

He said those bylaws were one of the features that attracted them to buy the land where their home now sits. That's because they protect the homeowners' privacy and access to their home, according to Bonnano.

"The Tinnerellos then engaged with the commission to work with them and provided the commission with points of access that could accomplish the shared goal of achieving open space in that area," Bonnano said. "The Commission preferred not to pursue the other access point options, instead requesting that the private road serving the properties, including the Tinnerello's, be converted into a public road."

Evan Griswold said the commission is withdrawing from the contract. He estimated the commission spent a "couple thousand dollars" from its reserve fund on an appraisal and legal fees.

"We're kind of taking stock, and obviously we're disappointed and it's kind of a shame," he said.

He pointed to benefits of the acquisition such as an enlarged Ames Open Space, a better protected Black Hall River watershed, additional refuge for endangered species and the preservation of forest land that can mitigate global warming.

Open Space officials have emphasized it would also help the town further its goal of creating an interconnected, town-wide hiking trail since the property sits across the street from the 312-acre McCulloch Family Open Space owned by the town and the 205-acre Lay-Allen Preserve owned by the Old Lyme Land Trust.

e.regan@theday.com

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