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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Analysis: Not buying open space would cost East Lyme taxpayers

    East Lyme ―An analysis done by Town Finance Director Kevin Gervais has found it will cost taxpayers almost $300,000 a year if the town doesn’t purchase 255 acres of open space being offered by the East Lyme Land Trust.

    Gervais this past week said his informal estimates show that if 45 new houses were built on undeveloped land in the Niantic and Flanders areas of town, they would produce $470,232 in property tax revenue annually while costing the town $764,407 in public services.

    He included expenses related to education, public safety and trash collection, but cautioned “there are many more expenses to account for” that he didn’t have time to consider.

    Education alone accounts for $728,064 of those costs, according to the finance director. His conservative estimate assumes 0.8 children live in each house, which he said is based on an average household size nationally of 2.6 people.

    Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton said per-pupil expenditures are currently $20,224 a year.

    Against the backdrop of an Oct. 17 referendum asking voters to weigh in on the potential $2.75 million purchase of open space spread out across three locations in town, Gervais’ estimates represent the costs to the town that could result if somebody else buys the land instead.

    First Selectman Kevin Seery has said a conservation easement would protect the land from development in perpetuity if the town goes through with the purchase.

    Based on areas identified by an appraiser as developable, Gervais estimated 30 houses could be built on 120 acres near Pattagansett Lake while another 15 could fit on 22 acres in the Giants Neck Beach area currently serving as a trail system for the East Lyme Land Trust.

    Gervais assumed a value of $600,000 for each house, with taxes assessed on $420,000. He used the current tax rate of 24.88 mills.

    “I thought that was pretty conservative,” he told the finance board. “Try to buy a $600,000 brand new house in this town. Good luck.”

    He said it would take 23.2 years for residents there to pay back in taxes the amount they consumed in education services. That means if a family lives in town for fewer than 23 years, “the rest of the town picked up the bill for that education.”

    Besides education, Gervais calculated total expenses related to fire services at $8,023, police services at $17,514, emergency dispatch services at $3,810 and emergency operations center expenses at $977.

    Then there’s trash collection, he said.

    The costs amounted to $6,000 spread out over Gervais’ imaginary neighborhoods in the woods. Per household, that’s $71 for disposal, $20 to maintain the garbage trucks, and $44 to pay the salaries for three drivers and the sanitation foreman.

    “Just garbage, the town’s paying $120 bucks a household,” Gervais said.

    Board of Finance Chairwoman Denise Hall told the finance board she requested the analysis as a way to envision not just what the town might be spending on the open space purchase, but to consider what costs the town might be avoiding as well.

    “The only way we keep taxes down is by growing the grand list,” she said. “If we take all this property off of potential development, that makes it hard to keep growing the grand list. But on the other hand, it’s those costs we don’t think about that may offset that decision.”

    The conversation came amid controversy about what some describe as the “overdevelopment” of East Lyme. Opponents point to large, multifamily developments on Main Street and an affordable housing proposal for single-family homes and townhouses in the woods near the Montville border.

    Critics have been vocal about the Norton, a mixed use building on Main Street that opened in 2022. The three-story, 32,928-square-foot building overlooking Niantic Bay has 12 condominiums and four businesses, including the popular Sift Bake Shop. Zoning regulations were subsequently revised to prohibit that kind of mixed-use project in the Niantic business district going forward.

    Eric Goodman, a developer of the Norton as well as the Standard in Mystic, on Friday objected to the idea of the finance board doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine if people should move to town or not.

    “That is absolutely an un-American argument,” he said.

    A proponent of open space preservation, he said he’d rather see a town approve 40 apartments on small lots downtown, “where people can walk and spend,” than see it approve single-family homes on 40 acres of open space.

    But he bristled at the level of government control he perceived in the finance board’s conversation about the value of new residents.

    “It’s actually kind of scary to think, ‘Oh, don’t move here because you’re going to cost the town more,’” he said.

    e.regan@theday.com

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