Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Town may resurrect open space purchase plan

By Jason Rowe
Journal Inquirer
February 8, 2006

VERNON - More than a year after voters narrowly rejected a plan to buy land for open space, residents again could be asked to approve $2 million in land purchases.

Details of a new open space acquisition plan began to emerge during Tuesday night's Town Council meeting, as members of the Open Space Task Force talked about the benefits of purchasing unused land for preservation.

Proposals to construct large retail stores and large-scale residential projects have met resistance in recent years as the amount of unused land in town begins to dwindle.

In November 2004, voters rejected a $2.1 million plan to purchase unused land by a 5,477 to 5,204 margin.

But despite that defeat, Democratic Mayor Ellen L. Marmer said open space is an important issue in town that should be explored further.

Marmer said she would like to see the Town Council scheduled an April 4 referendum at its Feb. 21 meeting.

During the task force's presentation, Town Council members were told about the town's present bank of protected open space and the benefits of adding additional space.

After the presentation, the council adjourned to a closed-door executive session to discuss specific land parcels.

The state's Freedom of Information law permits these sessions when the revelation of the town's desire to purchase specific land could drive up the asking price.

Karl Hasel, co-chairman of the task force, told the Town Council that 15 percent of the town's land is considered to be protected open space.

This land includes parcels owned by the state, private land trusts and nonprofits, and town parks and cemeteries.

That open space, which amounts to about 1,800 acres, also includes bodies of water like the Shenipsit Lake, and land owned by utility companies.

Hasel told the council that purchasing additional unused properties could provide economic, social, and physical benefits to the town.

Among those benefits are the preservation of the town's "character," additional recreation resources, and increased property values, he said.

"They all add up to enhancing the quality of life in town," Hasel said. "This is important to how the people in town view their property and neighborhood."

Using the state's goal of 21 percent open space in each community by 2023, the town would need to acquire an additional 700 acres.

This would amount to about one-third of all undeveloped land remaining in the town, officials said.

Although she didn't mention any specific parcels, Ann Letendre, who also co-chairs the task force, said the group's key objectives are to create a "greenway" of 2,000 protected acres in the Tankerhoosen River watershed, create a greenway along the Hockanum River, and preserve the Strong family farm in Vernon Center.

The Strong farm is the last remaining operating farm in Vernon, officials said.

"You can't go forward unless you have some money in hand," Letendre said. "You need to have something available when the window of opportunity rises."

If voters approve the plan, Hasel said, it would not mean an "open checkbook" for the open space task force.

Hasel said the group has a specific plan with specific goals and would use a "rigorous" acquisition process, which would include two price appraisals and Town Council approval.

By bonding money for open space purchases, Hasel said, there would be no cost to taxpayers until the funds are actually used.

In addition to purchasing undeveloped land, Hasel said, the town could purchase conservation easements and development rights, which would keep affected land on the tax rolls.

The possible removal of land from tax rolls was a concern expressed by Republican Deputy Mayor Jason L. McCoy during Tuesday night's meeting.

Before the task force's presentation, Economic Development Director and Assistant Town Planner Neil S. Pade told the Town Council that many residents don't realize some of the town's largest open space parcels could be developed in future years.

And as unused land ideal for development becomes less prevalent, Pade said, developers are going to look to increase the densities of their proposals as a way of overcoming increased environmental costs.

"This is the point where land acquisition and conservation easements are going to come into play in the future," Pade said. "Our town is maturing very fast, as far as development of our town lands is concerned."

©Journal Inquirer 2006