Following is text of the letter from the Executive Director of the Connecticut Audubon Society to the 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.
Easton Courier on October 15, 2016
To the Editor:
Saddle Ridge has once again submitted an application for high-density housing on the public watershed. Once again, Citizens for Easton will oppose any proposal that seeks to overturn long-standing zoning regulations designed to protect a vital resource which Easton and Fairfield County rely upon.
Eight months ago, Judge Marshall K. Berger Jr. of the Hartford District Superior Court rejected an earlier Saddle Ridge high-density application which would have imperilled the long term health and maintenance of the watershed. Saddle Ridge was subsequently denied certification for appeal, upholding Judge Berger’s decision.
The new application — which seeks one unit per acre, in addition to duplexes on 18 lots — purports to conform to the so-called affordable housing statute. However, Judge Berger argued that the protection of the watershed, along with the manifest public health issues directly related to that protection, must assume precedence over such considerations.
In opposing the earlier high-density housing application, CFE had likewise argued that issues of public health and the protection of the watershed must supercede the short term financial interests of any developer. With the full understanding that Planning & Zoning must take into careful consideration any application that comes before it, we once again urge its members to summarily reject this most recent one as well.
Citizens for Easton Board
Easton Courier: By Jane Paley, Special to The Easton Courier on October 5, 2016:
Humans aren’t alone; some of our wildlife species could be losing their habitats. This may give pause to those who moved to Easton for its rural character and commitment to preserving the town’s woods, wetlands, waters, and open spaces.
The Eastern box turtle, wood turtle and sharp-shinned hawk are three examples. Each lives along and in the Mill River in the vicinity of the South Park property where various development proposals are being considered by the Board of Selectmen/woman.
The National Wildlife Federation describes the Eastern box turtle as five to six inches long with a domed shell. The turtles come in various shades of brown, frequently with yellow markings. They have a curved mouth and eat “just about anything they can catch and fit in their mouths.”
In their current Mill River home, they can find cool shelter from the sun and a plentiful diet of insects, berries and roots.
According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, this turtle “gets its name from its ability to completely withdraw into its shell, closing itself in with a hinged plastron. Box turtles are the only Connecticut turtle with this ability.”
The DEEP fact sheet offers concerns about this species: “Because of the population decline in Connecticut, the box turtle was added to the state’s List of Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern Species when it was revised in 1998. It is currently listed as a species of special concern.
“… Loss of habitat is probably the greatest threat to turtles. Some turtles may be killed directly by construction activities, but many more are lost when important habitat areas for shelter, feeding, hibernation, or nesting are destroyed.”
The wood turtle is five to nine inches in length and has an elaborate shell. Those found in New England often have orange markings. According to the DEEP fact sheet, their habitat is ”usually within 1,000 feet of a suitable stream or rivers, where they hibernate in the winter.” This species is also of special concern to DEEP.
“The wood turtle is imperiled throughout a large portion of its range and was placed under international regulatory trade protection through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1992. Wood turtles have also been included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as a vulnerable species in 1996. … They are protected by the Connecticut Endangered Species Act.”
The DEEP placed the sharp-shinned hawk on Connecticut’s Endangered Species list. “It is the smallest North American accipiter. … Many were lost as a result of pesticides in the 1970s. Although pesticides no longer play as large a role in the decline of sharp-shinned populations today, the species is still affected by other factors, like the loss of habitat.
“Collisions with plate glass doors and picture windows are responsible for the deaths of many sharp-shinned hawks annually. The glass reflects the surrounding woods and cannot be readily distinguished by a hawk chasing prey or seeking cover.”
Advice from DEEP is both implicit and explicit: Protect these vulnerable species.
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 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.
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.”
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
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!