Town Urges State Officials To See That Aquarion Land Is Preserved, Not Developed; Public Hearing Scheduled for June 1


Town officials and open space advocates are urging a state agency that oversees utilities in Connecticut to see that the water company doesn’t sell off pieces of a large parcel of untouched land in southwestern New Canaan to developers, but rather ensures its preservation, as-is.

Looking at the Noroton River from a bridge on Indian Waters Lane. Credit: Michael Dinan

Looking at the Noroton River from a bridge on Indian Waters Lane. Credit: Michael Dinan

Calling Aquarion’s 18.9-acre property an “oasis” of “woods, stream and wetlands” and a wildlife corridor set amid developed 2-acre properties, the chairman of the New Canaan Conservation Commission in a letter this month told the Public Utility Regulatory Authority that his group is “concerned that while Aquarion has worked in recent years to get this parcel designated as ‘forest land,’ allowing it to lower the total appraised value to $239,600, the company now seeks to reverse all of that effort and sell the property off to developers at top rate.”

“Since the Town has always been agreeable to the lower ‘forest land’ tax valuation, we see no reason that this valuation should now change when discussing the parcel’s proposed sale to those who would continue to preserve, not develop, it,” Conservation Commission Chairman Cam Hutchins said in his May 4 letter.

“We are dismayed not just at the sudden, fast track turnaround in Aquarion’s stewardship of this oasis, but, if allowed, we are concerned about the message this reversal would convey about the 600 or so acres of other water company land in our town, and even more across the state. Please consider our point of view, which may differ from that being packaged and presented to you by Aquarion.”

Aquarion is proposing the subdivision and sale of a wooded parcel that straddles the Noroton River and is bordered by the points of three dead-ending roads—Indian Waters Drive, Welles Lane and Thurton Drive. After the water company made its intentions public in March, neighbors on Indian Waters rapidly united to voice support for the property’s conservation, and have filed a formal motion to intervene in Aquarion’s application, citing the utility’s intention to use their private road for access to the would-be subdivided lots (more on that below).

PURA, as the state regulatory agency is known, is set to hold public hearings at New Canaan Town Hall at 3 and 6 p.m. on June 1, documents show.

First Selectman Rob Mallozzi and Town Council Chairman Bill Walbert also sent a letter to PURA, saying that the New Canaan Land Trust “should pursue this land.”

“The town notes that Aquarion has held the Class III land with a book basis of $2,162 and has continually and successfully lowered the appraised value to $239,600,” Mallozzi and Walbert said in a May 3 letter. “The town has not objected to that valuation and believes it is the appropriate valuation to use when discussing a proposed sale of said open space to the [New Canaan Land Trust].”

According to documents on file with PURA, Aquarion is seeking to sell one 8.76-acre parcel to a neighbor of the property for $1.5 million, then subdivide the remaining 9.8 acres with two residential building lots—a 2.01-acre lot to sell for $1,212,500 and a 3.8-acre lot to sell for $1,537,500—with the other 4.17 acres, if the subdivision is approved, to go to the town.

The total that Aquarion would earn on the land sales comes to $4,250,000.

Asked to account for the difference between that figure and the $239,600 valuation on which its local property tax rate is calculated (the water company pays about $2,681 annually to the town for this property), a company spokesperson said that the lower value is based on a program of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The DEEP’s Public Act 490 program allows an owner to have property classified as forest land for tax purposes following an application to a local tax assessor and a qualified forester’s report.

“The $240,000 is a value based on DEEP’s PA-490 program for forested land,” Peter Fazekas, Aquarion’s director of public relations, told in an email. “If one meets the program’s criteria, property owners are allowed to reduce the value of their forested land. This is beneficial to our ratepayers, since property taxes is one of the company’s largest expenses, and has a direct impact on the rates customers pay. This program value should not be confused with actual fair market value which is the value of the property at its highest and best use.”

According to documents on file with PURA, Aquarion intends to submit its application to the New Canaan Planning & Zoning Commission this month (it meets May 31), and is seeking approval from the state regulatory authority June 8.

“If the lots are not approved, the company may market and attempt to sell the entire 9.98-acre parcel,” Aquarion said in responses to questions that are in the file ahead of next week’s public hearing.

Aquarion also said in its responses that it has received “a few calls from developers who may be interested if and when the lots are approved” by P&Z.

“Customers will benefit from the available cash which the company will be able to use to invest in infrastructure (as opposed to needing to finance through debt or other equity financing),” Aquarion said in its responses.

Meanwhile, the owners of 15 residences on Indian Waters Drive in April filed a petition with PURA, saying that on a conceptual development plan attached to Aquarion’s application, the water company includes access off of their road to access the two new building lots.

“Aquarion has no legal right to utilize Indian Waters Drive,” the attorney for the neighbors, Amy Zabetakis of the Darien-based Rucci Law Group, said in the petition.

The water company’s attorneys promptly filed a response, asking PURA to deny the neighbors’ right to intervene, saying they’re not ratepayers—a claim that Zabetakis subsequently challenged.

On May 4, PURA denied the neighbors ‘intervenor’ status, saying that such matters typically are resolved in court and that the Indian Waters Drive residents do not collectively form the right type of ratepayer subset.

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