Mill River Park proposed for South Park

Nancy Doniger on August 25, 2016

Citizens for Easton wants to preserve the South Park Avenue tract as a park, which they have named the Mill River Park. — Bryan Haeffele photo

Mill River Park … forever yours or forever gone. That is the title of Citizens for Easton’s proposal to retain the 29.6 acres of town-owned property at 22 South Park Avenue as open space in perpetuity by making it a town park.

Passive recreation at Mill River Park would bring enjoyment that’s appealing to all, according to the proposal. Activities would include catch-and-release fishing, en plein air painting, picnicking, walks, photography, school study groups and bird watching.

Former first Selectman William J. Kupinse Jr. presented the Mill River Park proposal in a slideshow to the Board of Selectmen and residents who packed the community room at the Easton Public Library. — Bryan Haeffele photo

Former first Selectman William J. Kupinse Jr. presented the proposal in a slideshow to the Board of Selectmen and residents who packed the community room at the Easton Public Library, filling every seat and spilling over into standing room in the back.

“Citizens for Easton was founded back in the 70s, and the reason it was founded was to prevent development on this very piece of property,” Kupinse said.

He provided a brief overview of the group’s successful preservation projects over the years and invited anyone who is interested to “join up with us.”

“We are not as some people have suggested a bunch of trouble makers,” he said. “We have tried instead to preserve the Easton we know and love.”

Roughly 67 people, from 20-somethings to senior citizens, turned out for the Aug. 18 meeting to hear Citizens for Easton’s ideas, the latest in a growing list of proposals for the site the selectmen have heard over the past two years.

The town owes $4.6 million for the South Park tract, which it purchased in 2008 from Running Brook Farm. At the time, the site was the subject of a 72-unit high-density affordable housing application scheduled for trial in Superior Court in Litchfield.

Voters agreed at a June 17, 2008, referendum to appropriate $6.15 million “… for preservation, conservation and land use control purposes … ,“ according to the ballot, which is posted on the town website, Eastonct.gov, under South Park Information, along with related documents.

“This was not a proposal to buy the to buy the land for open space,” according to the minutes of a special town meeting June 9, 2008, that preceded the referendum.

“Although the town would purchase the land, it would simultaneously sell a two-year lease/purchase option to the New England Prayer Center for $300,000. This amount would cover the town’s cost during the option period. If the lease/purchase option was not exercised, the town could sell 14 1-acre lots to cover the cost of the purchase and retain the remainder of the land as open space,” the minutes state.

The town lease-and-purchase-option agreement with the nonprofit New England Prayer Center permitted six-month extensions if the town’s approval of the prayer center’s building plan was appealed by a third party, which it was.

The prayer center lost its final option to purchase the property after six years and multiple lawsuits. It has submitted a new proposal, which the selectmen are considering along with the others.

Resident Amy Zima said she and her family chose to live in Easton over neighboring towns because of its open space and pastoral qualities. — Bryan Haeffele photo

A park for southern Easton

Easton is a jewel in Fairfield County that is not replicated anywhere else, Kupinse said.

“It is an amazing town,” he said. “If you want development, there are plenty of towns for you to go to.”

Citizens for Easton has proposed the Mill River Park for South Park, not for themselves but for future generations, he said.

“Some of us are getting older and will perhaps be going somewhere else when we go from here, and it’s not to another town,” he said, generating laughs. “We have a generation coming up that really needs what we have here in Easton, and I would urge everyone to support this.”

He said he could speak about what’s wrong with the other proposals, but instead was taking a positive approach in recommending Mill River Park for the site. He said it makes sense for financial reasons to have a park in southern Easton. It also makes sense from a planning and zoning standpoint, and Citizens for Easton supports what the P&Z has done over these many years; it further makes sense for protection of natural resources, he said.

Easton has a lot of open space, much of it is not conducive to walking on it, and most of it is in the northern part of the town, he said.

“Mill River Park would be an ideal neighborhood park for southern Easton, and it is more accessible than the open space in the northern part of town,” Kupinse said.

The South Park Avenue tract is an iconic gateway to Easton, just off the Merritt Parkway, and one of the main routes into Easton.

“Mill River Park makes sense for financial reasons,” Kupinse said. “Many communities feel they have to develop their land. Actually studies show it’s less expensive if you have open space or anything without buildings on it. Once you start putting buildings on it, it costs more to supply all the benefits homeowners want than the town would get in taxes.”

South Park costs the town less than 1% of its $43 million budget, he said. “If we sell it taxes aren’t going  to go down. It makes good sense that if it’s less than 1% we’re keeping it.”

Right now the property is costing taxpayers $160 a year. If the town bonds the property, it will drop to $120 a year per household. After 20 years the debt would be repaid, and Easton would own the property, he said.

“It’s cheaper to have non-developed property than to develop it and spend taxes on it,” he said. “Controlling the property saves money.”

In the past the town has had some fights over development, and it costs money to defend it. If South Park has a new owner, the owner can promise anything, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try to do something else in the future, he said.

“If we own it, we don’t have to defend it,” he said.

If the town sells it to a non profit, it can get payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for it, but based on the condition of the state there is no guarantee the PILOT funds will continue to provide a positive cash flow. If the town sells it to a for-profit entity, it will have to supply services in return for the taxes it will receive, he said.

P&Z supplied a report on putting senior housing on the site at the request of the selectmen, but “I suppose there’s no harm in looking at things, but I hope people realize it’s not the vision for the property that we should have,” he said.

Mill River Park makes sense from planning point of view because the town can keep the property in conformity with the vision P&Z has for Easton.

If the town has a referendum as the selectmen have suggested, he urges them not to have two choices such as athletics and senior housing. He said they should have open space as one of the choices.

“We have nature’s classroom in our backyard, and we should keep it,” Kupinse said. “Once we sell it, it’s gone.”

Addressing the Board of Selectmen, James Prosek said he supports Citizens for Easton's proposal. He and Laura Modlin created the Mill River Heritage Project, an educational website to educate the public about the Mill River. — Bryan Haeffele photo

Residents at the meeting overwhelmingly favored preservation of the site for open space and urged town officials not to sell it. Many of them delivered impassioned prepared statements to applause and in some cases, a standing ovation. Others gave spontaneous remarks.

Comments from residents and the Board of Selectmen are in a separate article in the Aug. 25 Easton Courier. Watch for our video coming soon at EastonCourier.com

A tisket, a tasket, win a goodie basket in Easton

By Jane Paley on August 16, 2016 in Community,

Easton’s Eighth Annual Farm Tour, this year scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 20, from 10 to 3, will offer free chances to win five prizes instead of last year’s single “Big Red Basket.”

Arriving visitors to the Firehouse Green, the first stop on the tour, may enter the free drawing for five different prizes, all of which were donated by Easton farms, businesses, artists and artisans. Baskets containing local non-perishable treats, autographed books by local authors, and a children’s gift bag are among the offerings.

Winners will be contacted at the end of the tour and may claim their prizes thereafter. This year’s donors include James Prosek, the Apple Barn, Silverman’s, Sport Hill Farm, and the Easton Village Store.

Tickets (one per family) will be at the Citizens for Easton tent on the green.

This year, the odds of winning are five times better!

CFE PRESENTATION ON 22 SOUTH PARK AVENUE

mill river from david

View of the Mill River on the 29.6 acre South Park property in Easton. This section of the Mill River is designated by the state of Connecticut as a Class 1 Wild Trout Management Area, one of only nine in the state.

Please join us at 7:30, Thursday, August 18, 2016 at the Library Community Room where CFE will present to the BOS a proposal to retain the 29.6 acres of property located at 22 South Park Avenue as open space in perpetuity.

 

Your presence at the presentation will send a strong message to the selectmen that the majority of the townspeople feel very strongly about preserving this unique piece of Easton’s character and heritage for current and future generations.

 

Please pass this email to anyone you know who is interested in preserving Easton’s future and character.

 

Also,  sign up to receive important information as we post it to our website. Simply, mouse over the bottom right corner, click the “follow” tab and enter your email address.

 

Thank you for your support!

Citizens for Easton

 

SOUTH PARK PRESENTATION-SAVE THE DATE!

Forever Yours or Forever Gone: On Thursday, August 18, 2016 (location and time to be determined by Board of Selectmen) Citizens for Easton will present to the Selectmen a proposal to retain the unique 29.6 South Park Avenue property as open space in perpetuity. This pastoral landscape is part of Easton’s rural character and abuts the Mill River, one of only nine Class A Wild Trout streams left in Connecticut. Your presence will send a strong message to the Selectmen that townspeople feel very strongly about preserving this important part of Easton’s character and heritage for current and future generations.

Please also pass this information to others interested in preserving part of what makes Easton special and safeguarding the sensitive Mill River.

Email cfe@citizensforeaston.org to signup for important updates.

Thank you for your support!

Connecticut Audubon Society Supports Preservation of South Park Avenue Property

Following is the text of The Connecticut Audubon Society’s letter submitted to Easton Board of Selectmen:

The Connecticut Audubon Society joins with Citizens for Easton in its concern about the future of 29.6 acres on South Park Avenue adjacent to the Mill River. Development of this town-owned land will compromise a small but beautiful wildlife habitat that plays an important watershed protection role for the river, and is a much-used and enjoyed passive outdoor recreational area for birdwatchers, anglers, artists and school groups. The Mill River is one of only nine Class A Wild Trout Streams left in Connecticut and is unique because it is pristine and cold enough to sustain wild trout despite being on the edge of a suburban area. Wild brook and brown trout are among 17 fish species listed as “most important” in the Connecticut Wildlife Action Plan. Preserving the property would also be consistent with Easton’s Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which states as its “cardinal principle”: “The major policies and goals of the Town Plan in respect to resource conservation are: Protect the natural, scenic, historical and cultural resources of the town, especially its wetlands, streambelts and ground water resources, but also its steep slopes, ridgelines, major trees and significant wildlife areas …” The Connecticut Audubon Society is the state’s original, independent Audubon. We and our many members in Easton look forward to your leadership as exemplary stewards of the environment by supporting the preservation the 29.6 acres on South Park Avenue as open space in perpetuity for current and future generations.

 

Judge ends Easton battle over development proposed on watershed land-CT Post-July 17, 2017

post saddle ridge imageEASTON — The legal battle over the proposed Saddle Ridge development on 124.7 acres of watershed land along Sport Hill Road has officially ended.

For more than five years, town residents, officials and others argued a housing development was too intense a proposal for the privately owned parcel bordered by Sport Hill, Westport, Silver Hill and Cedar Hill roads.

The town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and Conservation Commission denied two separate plans — one for a 105-unit development and another for a 99-unit proposal — in 2011.

Developers Huntley “Bucky” Stone and Robert Carlson, on the other hand, contended that their plans, which would include affordable housing within the development, would not have a substantially different impact on the land than a plan approved in 2009 for 21 mansions. They appealed the commissions’ decisions in Superior Court.

Earlier this year, Hartford Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger ruled that the plans were not appropriate for the area. And recently, ending the debate once and for all, the Appellate Court decided not to take up the case, as requested by the developers.

Verne Gay, president of Citizens for Easton, a community group formed in the 1970s to help protect the town’s open space, said he’s not sure whether Stone, the face of the development, will now give up plans to develop the site or submit a new proposal.

“The courts rejected the appeal,” Gay said. “Does he have another move? I don’t know.”

For town residents, the legal battle was a long one that required constant attention and funds to pay a lawyer of their own. Citizens for Easton created the Coalition to Save Easton for this reason, which attained intervenor status in the case, meaning it was always aware of the latest actions in the case.

“It has been very hard,” Gay said. “We all have our own jobs and lives. Over the years, Bucky was well funded and he had a very good legal team. At any point through this process he could have prevailed. Our difficulty was to just keep fighting.”

“We’re very simply a local tree-hugger group here,” Gay added. “It has no other motivation. It’s just protecting the town.”

Stone and Carlson did not return calls for comment.

The town’s regulations limit development in the property’s zone to one dwelling unit per 2 acres of buildable area, excluding the wetlands. The developers sought a more dense housing complex of 99 units in 31 buildings, with 30 percent of the townhouses set aside as affordable.

Under state statute, if a town with less than 10 percent affordable housing rejects a developer’s application to build affordable housing, the burden of proof is on the town to show the plan would harm public health, safety or other matters.

Ira Bloom, of the law firm Berchem, Moses and Devlin P.C., served as legal counsel for the town commissions. “For Easton it was extremely important to protect the town’s resources and, in particular, the public water supply area,” he said

The complex would have sat within two watersheds: the Easton Lake Reservoir and the Aspetuck Reservoir. Both serve as the Aquarion Water Co.’s public drinking water supply reservoirs that serve more than 400,000 Fairfield County residents.

First Selectman Adam Dunsby said protecting the watershed land merits appropriate restrictions on developments.

Brian Roach, program manager of environmental protection for Aquarion, said the 99-unit complex proposed housing densities that were more than two times the maximum density shown to be appropriate to protect water quality within watersheds.

“While Aquarion acknowledges the need for affordable housing in Connecticut, it strongly believes that high-density residential developments should only be considered for locations that are not within public drinking water supply watersheds,” Roach said.

In his 56-page decision, Judge Berger noted that the state statute that addresses affordable housing, section 8-30g, was not meant to tie the hands of communities like Easton, who have a low percentage of affordable housing.

“Saddle Ridge’s application highlights Easton’s need for affordable housing,” the decision states. “The Legislature’s enactment of (Section) 8-30g to accomplish that goal was not intended to allow every development at the cost of damaging natural resources such as our wetlands and watercourses. Sometimes, a different type or less intensive use of the land is demanded.”

ktorres@hearstmediact.com; 203-330-6227

 

 

8th Annual Farm Tour Date Set

August 20, 2016-Save the date!

More info to follow!