Town officials on Tuesday morning voiced support for a special appropriation to help a local organization dedicated to land conservation acquire a wooded 6-acre parcel now available for purchase.
Though the three-person Board of Selectmen stopped short of an official vote—the discussion of the Silvermine Road property came before the trio as a non-voting, informational item—the group spoke in favor of helping the New Canaan Land Trust buy it. At the time of the selectmen’s regular meeting, the Land Trust was seeking $320,000 from the town to close the $1,070,000 purchase (overall, $1.3 million is needed).
Selectman Nick Williams said that he was “generally supportive” of the Land Trust’s efforts to acquire what’s called the “Fowler property,” named for its owner, award-winning zoologist and longtime New Canaanite Jim Fowler.
“These opportunities do not come along that often,” Williams said at the meeting, held in Town Hall. “So even though it’s a tough budget year, this may be a one-off that we should support. As far as that number [$320,000], I would like to get keep getting lower.”
It stood at $365,000 last week, when representatives from the Land Trust and national Trust for Public Land addressed the Board of Finance—but additional donations to help with the purchase have come in from generous supporters, officials said, including in $50 and $100 increments.
The $1.3 million project total includes $1,070,000 for the land, $80,000 for ongoing maintenance of the property and $150,000 toward the Trust for Public Land. Of the approximately $1 million raised or pledged, more than $700,000 is coming from outside of New Canaan, in the form of a state grant ($535,000) as well as donations, according to the Land Trust.
Selectman Beth Jones said she was “hugely supportive” of New Canaan helping with the acquisition.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” Jones said. “We do not have the option of putting this off to next year and I think we have in the past—I have lived here all my life, which is a long time—and I think some of the biggest regrets the town has had have been passing up the opportunities like this and letting them slip through our fingers.”
Citing prominent play in local media, First Selectman Rob Mallozzi said the public recently has been made aware of the proposed acquisition and that it’s garnered wide support.
“I believe you will get even greater public support,” the first selectman told Land Trust and Trust for Public Land officials.
Noting that the meeting drew an unusually high number of attendees, several of whom took to the podium to address the selectmen (more on them below), Mallozzi added: “It is clearly a worthwhile project to the people here in this room.”
The Land Trust has been under contract with the Fowlers for 18 months on the property, officials said, and has until the end of February to see through the purchase agreement.
Ben Weiland, a New York-based project manager for the Trust for Public Land, said the Fowlers have been “exceedingly generous” and that their desire to see the parcel preserved as open space “goes to their passion to see the property protected.”
The would-be “Silvermine-Fowler preserve” is contiguous to a 41-acre parcel already owned and maintained by the Land Trust (see map below).
The immediate past president of the Land Trust, Chris Schipper, said that the selectmen’s feedback was “very encouraging” and, nothing that the Land Trust is already out $42,000 (paid for an option to take the property off the market), asked whether the town is positioned to help out by Feb. 28.
Mallozzi answered: “Yes, we are.”
The next step would be for the Board of Finance to take up the matter in January, Mallozzi said. The first selectman added that he would contact Fowler directly if the town’s own approval processes required a short extension.
Approval also is needed from the Town Council in order to transfer funds from New Canaan’s coffers.
The selectmen asked whether the Land Trust is still actively fundraising (yes, in fact 10 more donors stepped up on Monday), a town contribution could be returned if it ultimately is not needed (yes), whether $1,070,000 is a good price (yes, it hit the market in 2014 for $1.7 million), whether are any loose ends with respect to Planning & Zoning or Inland Wetlands (no, and having the funds in place to take down the house, remediate the site and create trails and public access all form part of the contingency for the state funds).,
Schipper reviewed a history of the property, told the selectmen that immediate and nearby neighbors have been kept abreast of developments and voiced support for the acquisition—he referred to a letter of support from the Silvermine Neighborhood Association—and said: “I think there are a lot of citizens in town who feel that opportunities to preserve open space are important.”
Six residents addressed the board to speak in favor of a special appropriation for the Land Trust’s purchase.
Noting that opportunities to secure undeveloped property come up rarely, the advocates said open space benefits all New Canaanites and underscored that the acquisition of the Fowler property is timely.
“This is not the same as putting new turf on paying fields—that can always be deferred,” Skip Hobbs said. “The Fowler acquisition cannot be deferred.”
Cam Hutchins, chairman of the Conservation Commission, said he favored any means of acquiring open space in town. Noting that the Land Trust acted in good faith by raising money and securing grants prior to coming to the town for help, Hutchins said a study conducted 10 years ago by the League of Women Voters of New Canaan found that among what was most important to town residents, preserving open space ranked second (behind only the schools).
One resident, Cindy Hagedorn, who said she lives adjacent to a Land Trust property off of West Road, spoke out against the town spending money to help with the purchase.
Hagedorn said she was concerned that her home appeared in a Land Trust video captured by a camera affixed to a drone flying overhead.
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“Land Trusts are a good thing but not when it comes to our taxpayer money,” she said. “We are still paying for our purchase of Irwin Park and for many years to come. I would think since this is a private organization that owns 380 acres of our very precious land with no stewardship that we can talk to about problems. I think it should concern all of us and that is why I hope the town does not take money that they [Land Trust officials] haven’t figured out how to raise, and bully us into buying more land.”
Schipper noted during his comments that New Canaan paid approximately $500,000 per acre for Irwin, and would be contributing about $50,000 for each acre of the Fowler property.
Asked for his thoughts on the prospective acquisition by the Land Trust, Town Planner Steve Palmer said New Canaan is “really fortunate” to have such a dedicated private organization doing work that municipalities often handle.
That a state agency deemed the project worthy of its funding sources is a strong indicator of its importance, Palmer said.
“I am not going to doubt that they [state officials] have made determination that it is a worthy investment, so my thought is, I hope you give it the same consideration,” he said.