Part of the cost will be offset by a $112,500 state grant.
The town soon will add almost 200 acres to lands that will be protected from development into the foreseeable future.
The Town Council on Monday approved the purchase of the 135-acre Albert E. Moss Forest, Wildflower and Wildlife Sanctuary for $100,00, along with two other parcels totaling 60-plus acres that will complete the Coney Rock preservation project for $337,500. The town also has been awarded a grant for $112,500 towards one of these parcels, the Dorwart property.
The council vote followed a public hearing in which there was strong support for the purchases, although there were some who questioned spending the funds during these unstable economic times.
Some objected because of costs of future maintenance and repairs.
Mike Sikoski also objected to the fact that the town council had held an executive session – a closed meeting – before the hearing. A government body is allowed to hold a closed meeting when negotiations are involved, however, Sikoski said the council should tell the public what was discussed so that the public is fully informed before holding a hearing.
He and another speaker, Betty Wassmundt, asked the council to keep the hearing open until this information was made public.
Sikoski also said the town should not buy the Dorwart property without knowing for certain that the $112,500 grant will actually be paid, given the state’s budgetary problems.
Mansfield Parks Coordinator Jennifer Kaufman said that the town has written confirmation that it has been awarded this grant. “That money isn’t going anywhere,” she said.
Is UConn saddling the town with its own problem?
Sikoski and others also questioned the University of Connecticut’s previous “threats” to build housing on the Moss Sanctuary property, which currently has no restrictions on what UConn can do with that land.
David Freudmann said the town should “call their bluff,” because UConn is “land hungry” and if the university wanted to build on it, it wouldn’t be selling it now. “They want to saddle us with the problem of a defective dam,” he said.
Town staff has estimated it will cost $218, 600 over the next five to ten years to make repairs. Town Manager Matt Hart also reported that the town is eligible for a DEP grant that could cover up to 75 percent of those costs.
Open Space Preservation Committee Chair James Morrow said UConn had at one time discussed building apartments for graduate student families, which would have added to the town’s service costs, such as education for the children of those families.
Mansfield Town Planner Greg Padick said that several sections of the 135-acre property are buildable, including land near Birchwood Heights and Knollwood Apartments.
Can these funds be used for other town expenses?
Others objecting to the purchases said they felt the dollars should be held onto as a kind of contingency fund to cushion the impact of anticipated budget cuts – both on the state and local level. There is approximately $630,000 in the town’s Open Space Acquisition Fund, appropriated over the past couple of years by previous town councils.
Unlike bonding or grant funds, these dollars are not restricted to land purchases. They can be used, for example, to help pay for repair of the dam at the Moss Sanctuary – or for any other purpose the current town council chooses.
However, Mayor Betsy Paterson said the funds had been earmarked for open space preservation specifically to take advantage of opportunities such as acquiring the Moss Sanctuary, which the town has had its eye on “for a very, very long time.”
“We appropriated it so that if property became available, we’d have the money without having to borrow it,” Paterson said.
Councilman Bruce Clouette agreed, saying that while this town council has the authority to spend the funds in some other way, “do we keep faith with the voters who approved a certain budget?”
Also speaking in favor of the Moss Sanctuary purchase was Bill Thorne, who teaches in the vocational-agricultural program at E.O. Smith High School. He said the land is a rich source of hands-on learning for his students in a number of subject areas - such as plant physiology, forest pathology, the study of wildlife, since the property includes a number of different habitats.
Kaufman also pointed out that the opportunity to buy the Moss Sanctuary is part of a larger plan developed by the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association. This deal “may be taken off the table,” at any time, she said.
The CFPA is acquiring the deed to the Moss Sanctuary through a multi-town swap of properties including lands owned by the University of Connecticut. The Moss Sanctuary is the only instance where a town will be taking ownership of the land, which is why there is a purchase price involved, said CFPA Land Conservation Director Damon Hearne.
Finance Director Jeff Smith said that if the town wants these properties, putting off the purchases until the economy improves might not be wise. “The best time to buy land is when times are tough,” he said, “because we can get land at very reasonable amounts.”
Posted Dec. 9, 2008
[Editor's note: Town Council meetings are now taped and can be viewed on Channel 13 at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For more about the land purchases, see "Town Council expected to vote tonight on land purchases for open space preservation," published on Dec. 8, 2008 in Mansfield Today. ]
For more information see: http://mansfield.htnp.com/news/council_approves_open_space_purchases.html