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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    East Lyme voters pledge millions to fend off development

    East Lyme ― Taxpayers came out against development in a decisive vote Tuesday, authorizing the purchase of 255 acres of open space spread out across town from the Oswegatchie Hills to the Pattagansett River.

    A question approving the purchase passed 1,450 to 167, while the question authorizing up to $2.35 million in bonds to pay for it passed 1,530 to 116.

    About 12% of registered voters turned out.

    The $2.35 million deal, bolstered by an expected $400,000 state grant and $200,000 from the town’s open space fund, shakes out to $1.75 million bonded over 15 years. The town finance department estimated the purchase will amount to an additional $17 per year in taxes for a home appraised at $400,000.

    Resident Kevin McGowan at the polls Tuesday morning said he’d rather pay the extra taxes than see the land developed.

    The purchase price includes $1.6 million for the 122-acre Hathaway property near Pattagansett Lake, $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.

    “We don’t need more development,” McGowan said. “We’ve got enough housing going up everywhere else.”

    Figures rolled out earlier this month by the town finance department estimated that building 45 new houses on two of the properties would cost the town almost $300,000 more in services than the houses would generate in property taxes each year. The informal analysis looked at expenses related to education, police and fire protection, and trash collection.

    The Hathaway 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 had 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.

    Hathaway Farm LLC holds the land trust mortgage identifying the Oswegatchie Hills and Ravenswood parcels as collateral.

    The sale to the town, more than two years in the making, has been controversial. The land trust was the subject of an inquiry by the state Office of the Attorney General related to the Hathaway property after complaints that the cash-strapped land trust was using property meant to be preserved as open space as collateral for the mortgage.

    Office of the Attorney General spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton last month told The Day the inquiry concluded with no official report or guidance issued, but said the agency will continue “to monitor the situation to ensure that state charities laws are followed.”

    Moving forward

    Harney on Tuesday called himself “an adviser to the lender,” which the mortgage shows is Hathaway Farm LLC. He has said the Delaware-based entity belongs to members of his family.

    “I’m encouraged that it’s moving forward,” he said of the purchase.

    Harney was involved in the 2017 sale of roughly 200 acres north of Interstate 95 near the Waterford border for $1.7 million funded by private donations, state and federal grants, and $350,000 from East Lyme taxpayers. He has 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 at no cost to local taxpayers.

    “Myself and other people have been instrumental, if this goes through, in protecting in excess of 800 acres in East Lyme,” he said.

    Land Trust board member Arthur Carlson said his organization didn’t consider it a risky move to put up the properties as collateral. Instead, he described the three parcels as a package deal with great value for a good price.

    He described the Oswegatchie Hills and Ravenswood properties as vulnerable because there was no language in the deeds, with one exception, protecting them from development.

    Land trust members thought mortgaging the land and selling it to the town was the best way to ensure the land would be protected in perpetuity, according to Carlson.

    “Which is exactly what we’re going to achieve,” he said.

    Carlson said the land trust members never saw any indications that Harney or his associates would “use the collateral in a bad way.”

    “We saw no reason not to trust,” he said. “You have to trust somebody, at some time, at some place.”

    First Selectman Kevin Seery on Tuesday said the next step involves finalizing details including title searches and the transfer of the $400,000 grant previously assigned by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to the land trust.

    The town also will work out the terms of a conservation easement to permanently protect the land.

    According to Seery, the local agencies qualified under state statute to administer conservation easements are the Avalonia Land Conservancy, the Friends of Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve and the East Lyme Land Trust.

    “I can assure you, it will not be the East Lyme Land Trust,” Seery said.

    The purchase agreement will be signed once details are finalized. The terms of the sale were agreed upon verbally by land trust attorney Anthony Novak and town attorney Mark Block, according to Seery.

    The first selectman said he appreciated the voters' support for land that had been donated to the land trust as open space.

    “This way, we ensure it will remain that way,” he said.


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