Ethel Walker Land Deal A Must
August 30 2006
A good example of the importance of open space preservation in Connecticut is the controversy over 424 acres of forest behind the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury. School officials have proposed to build a 122-house subdivision on the property to replenish Ethel Walker's endowment.
For starters, the land sits on top of an aquifer that supplies drinking water to 70 percent of the town's residents. It is a significant wildlife habitat and migration route, displays vernal pools and is contiguous to other protected forests.
It is baffling, therefore, that a plan from the town's selectmen to spend $11.1 million toward buying development rights to the land is having so much trouble getting on the November ballot for a referendum.
Simsbury's finance board rejected a proposal for a one-time appropriation of the entire amount because it would violate a town policy of holding debt service payments to 7 percent of budget.
Now, in a last-ditch effort to make the November deadline, selectmen have approved an alternative plan that spreads out the funding over several years.
Assuming that school officials go along with the idea, the finance board has until Sept. 6 to make up for its previous error in judgment. It should not let the opportunity pass by.
Both plans call for the Trust for Public Land to come up with another $2.75 million for a total of $13.85 million. Appraisers have concluded that the price is reasonable. Moreover, when you consider how much the town would have to spend in the long run on services and infrastructure if the property was developed, $13.85 million seems like a bargain.
Under the revised proposal, the town would bond $7 million for 330 acres of the land and set aside $1 million from its reserves as a deposit on the remaining 91 acres. Town officials would have another five years to come up with the $3.1 million balance or lose the deposit.
If school officials reject the new plan, finance board members will have only themselves to blame for being so shortsighted. The town's reserve fund is well above the level necessary to preserve Simsbury's bond rating. Bonding agencies might, in fact, view the acquisition as a smart move. Officials could also tap into $4 million earmarked in the town's capital plan for open space.
Saving a property of this magnitude is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any town. Simsbury residents and officials would be foolish to let it slip through their fingers.
Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant