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Diverse groups lobby to keep dedicated fund for land, farms, historic and housing projects

A broad cross-section of land conservation, affordable housing, historic preservation and farming advocacy groups have joined forces to oppose Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plan to empty funds from the Community Investment Act for fiscal 2015 and 2016.

“It’s been a very successful fund,” said Lisa Bassani, project director of the Working Lands Alliance’s Connecticut office. “This would be a complete sweep, and it’s hard to come back from a complete sweep.”

Malloy’s proposed budget would empty the approximately $13 million annually collected in each of the two years from a $40 charge placed on property transactions. Since creation of the fund in 2005, advocates say, $133 million has been invested in open space purchases, historic preservation, affordable housing projects and agriculture support. Many of the grants from the funds were matched with local funds.

Under Malloy’s budget plan, the funds collected from property sales would instead be added to the state’s general fund to help close the budget deficit, a move advocates of the fund say is contrary to the purpose for which the state created it.

Chris McClure, spokesman in the Office of Policy and Management, said Malloy had to make tough decisions to balance the budget while staying under the mandatory spending cap.

“Gov. Malloy has an exceptional record of support for environmental and agricultural issues, and his affordable housing policies have been tremendously effective,” McClure said.

He said that despite difficult budget circumstances, Malloy is continuing funding and bonding authorizations for “forward-thinking and essential programs,” including $355 million for affordable housing initiatives, and $20 million each for open space, Natural Heritage Trust programs, farmland preservation and green infrastructure.

At a public hearing last month before the General Assembly’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, 67 advocates of the fund representing diverse groups testified against Malloy’s plan. Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said 168 of 169 towns in the state have benefitted from the fund. Projects at Norwich Free Academy and Christ Episcopal Church in Norwich, the Long Society Meeting House in Preston, New London Landmarks, and the Avery-Copp House in Groton are among those that have benefitted, she said.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, testified that sweeping Community Investment Act funds collected by municipalities when deeds are filed would “violate the trust we placed in the legislature” that the money would go toward open space, farmland and historic preservation and affordable housing.

Two members of the Avalonia Land Conservancy also testified. Beth Sullivan of Stonington said the $35,500 from the fund that Avalonia put toward the purchase of Bell Cedar Swamp in North Stonington was critical to the nonprofit’s ability to preserve the property.

“People want open space,” she said. “We need these bigger sources of funds. It’s very hard for organizations like ours to find the financing to preserve these open spaces that preserve species.”

Rick Newton, a life member of Avalonia, called the governor’s plan “nothing but pure theft of dedicated funds.”

“The CIA fund provides the only reliable source of funds” for open space and watershed land acquisition grant program, administered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Newton said.

Amy Patterson, executive director of the Connecticut Land Conservation Council, provided a list of 13 open space purchases and projects throughout southeastern Connecticut made possible because of funds from grant. Included were funds for the Coogan Farm in Stonington, FRESH New London, the Sheep Farm and Candelewood Ridge in Groton.

The funds also help dairy farms and preserve farmland. Preston farmer Clark Woodmansee testified that “from personal experience as a lifelong dairy producer, the funds from the Community Investment Act have been a boost for Connecticut’s dairy industry” by providing financial support when milk prices drop, helping keep dairy farmers in business.

Robin Chemser of Graywall Farms in Lebanon and James Smith of Cushman Farms in Franklin, both members of The Farmers Cow cooperative, also testified that funds they have tapped through the Dairy Sustainability Program have provided essential financial relief.

“It costs more to produce milk in Connecticut than other parts of the country,” Chesmer wrote in his testimony. “Connecticut dairy farmers … can’t pass on increased costs of production. The CIA program works to level the playing field and keep Connecticut farmers on the land.”

Bassani noted that supporters of the fund have created a website to educate people about it, and are continuing to lobby lawmakers so that the final budget preserves the fund.

“The conversations are still happening,” she said. “We’re still doing a lot of grassroots work.”

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

 

 

 

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