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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    East Lyme taxpayers to vote on buying 255 acres of open space

    East Lyme ―The Board of Selectmen on Thursday sent to voters the following $1.75 million question.

    Should the town buy 255 acres of open space from the East Lyme Land Trust to ensure it will remain undeveloped forever?

    The cost represents local taxpayers’ share of a proposed $2.35 million deal, including approximately $100,000 in fees, that would culminate more than two years of personal, political and environmental wrangling involving private investors, town officials and the East Lyme Land Trust.

    An expected $400,000 grant from the state and $200,000 from the town’s open space fund reduces the amount that will need to be financed going forward. The remaining $1.75 million, if bonded over 15 years as recommended by Finance Director Kevin Gervais, amounts to an additional $17 per year in taxes for a home appraised at $400,000.

    The purchase would allow the town to put permanent conservation easements on a total of 255 acres of currently undeveloped land. Included is a key swath of aquifer-heavy acreage near Pattagansett Lake known as the Hathway property, which officials have termed the town’s number one preservation priority because of the role it plays in ensuring a clean water supply.

    The referendum vote will take place Tuesday, Oct. 17, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the East Lyme Community Center, 41 Society Road.

    After Board of Finance members during a Thursday night special meeting voted unanimously in support of the purchase, the Board of Selectmen held its own special meeting to send the question to a referendum.

    The purchase price shakes out to $1.6 million for the 122-acre Hathaway property, $575,000 for 120 acres in an existing preserve in the Oswegatchie Hills, and $125,000 for the 22-acre Giants Neck trail system known as Ravenswood.

    Land records show only one portion of the Oswegatchie Hills property is legally protected from future development currently.

    The deal is contingent on factors including a clean title search and payment of all back taxes, which currently amount to $19,745. It’s also contingent on the transfer to the town of a $400,000 state grant awarded to the land trust in 2021.

    State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Paul Copleman last week said such a transfer “is not unprecedented.” The agency’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition grant program staff is in conversation with town and land trust officials on the details, according to the spokesman.

    Negotiations with the town began in 2021 during the first weeks of First Selectman Kevin Seery’s tenure. He has said it is a priority for him to bring the issue to a close before he vacates office in December.

    The property at the start of negotiations was owned by Hathaway Farm LLC and represented by former land trust member and East Lyme resident Steve Harney, who’d picked up the land for $1.05 million. When initial talk of a $1.65 million deal went nowhere, he sold the 138-acre property to the land trust for $2.3 million a year ago, minus about 16 acres of the most valuable lake and road frontage.

    Harney holds the land trust mortgage identifying the Oswegatchie Hills and Ravenswood parcels as collateral.

    The land trust has been the subject of an inquiry by the state Office of the Attorney General related to the Hathaway property. The inquiry was opened after complaints that the cash-strapped land trust was using land meant to be preserved as open space as collateral for the mortgage.

    Seery has said the agency told him the inquiry is over. Office of the Attorney General spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton last week told The Day no official report or guidance was issued, but the agency will continue“to monitor the situation to ensure that state charities laws are followed.”

    Harney has described open space transactions, which can benefit developers as well as conservationists, as a niche area of real estate with which he has more experience than most people.

    He was involved in the 2017 sale of roughly 200 acres north of Interstate 95 near the Waterford border for $1.7 million that was funded by private donations, state and federal grants, and $350,000 from East Lyme taxpayers. He’s also described himself as a consultant in the sale of 301 acres near the Montville border to the land trust for $1.6 million to create the Nehantic Nature Preserve. A $560,000 grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was used toward the purchase.

    Referendum Questions

    1. Shall the resolution appropriating and authorizing bonds in the amount of $2,350,000 for the purchase of the properties known as Brainerd Road, Oswegatchie Hills, and Hathaway Farms, be approved?

    2. Shall the resolution approving the purchase of real property for a cost not exceeding $2,350,000, be approved?

    e.regan@theday.com

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