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

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