Under the terms of the lease option, South Park became the property of Easton taxpayers. The Board of Selectmen and the bipartisan South Park Action Group want sell the property to a developer who will put it to desirable and responsible use and pay taxes — or payment in lieu of taxes in the case of a nonprofit — to generate revenue and pay off the remaining $4.9 million debt.
Citizens for Easton and individual preservationists want the town to retain ownership of the site, lease the land for organic farming as is done at Samuel Staples Elementary School and continue to lease the existing house to help pay down the debt.
Six potential buyers have stepped forward, including Sacred Heart University, with a campus nearby and the need for an aquatic center that would be open for town use and athletic facilities.
Another potential developer under serious consideration is Jewish Senior Services, which wants to build housing for elderly people. Easton has no such housing, and elderly residents who no longer want to or are unable to maintain a single-family house must move out of town. The New England Prayer Center has presented a new proposal.
The town has 6,859.4 acres of open space, about 11 square miles, or just over 37% of the town, according to the 2006 Plan of Conservation and Development. That’s more than the neighboring, affluent, rural towns of Redding and Weston.
It was interesting to learn that Citizens for Easton was formed in 1972 to protect the same property that today commands center stage. South Park, as the property has come to be known, is a flat plain bounded on one side by the Mill River and on the other by the road that bears its name, according to the Citizens for Easton website.
The Board of Selectmen, as the executive branch, has the power to decide South Park’s fate. The selectmen have been holding meetings and information sessions and seeking proposals. Should they decide to sell the property, they would hold a public hearing, as required by town ordinance.
The selectmen are not required to hold a referendum on the future of South Park but would be well served to do so, even though the result would be for advisory purposes only.
The referendum could pose the question, Should Easton retain or sell the South Park property? In addition to the advisory question, the referendum could ask voters their first, second and third choice among the six proposed development projects.
Easton residents revere open space on a par with family, faith and freedom. The choice to develop South Park or leave it be will have long-term consequences. A vote cast in the privacy of the polls would give the selectmen important guidance on how to best serve the will of the taxpayers.