East Lyme – More than 100 acres of land in the Oswegatchie Hills currently held by the East Lyme Land Trust has been pledged in the conservation group’s bid to keep another property which it sees as the first piece preservation of the city.
In September, the East Lyme Land Trust took possession of 120 pristine, aquifer-rich acres near Lake Pattagansett, known as the Hathaway property, for $2.3 million. The vendor, Hathaway Farm LLC, holds the land trust mortgage.
Now the land trust hopes to repay the loan on the Hathaway parcel by selling the organization’s interest in the 400-acre Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve to the city, which already owns the remaining 300 acres.
The primary stated goal of the parties involved — which include the land trust, the city and a self-proclaimed “conservation middleman” — is to keep the Hathaway property out of the hands of property developers. Less apparent at present are the unstated goals of these like-minded but contradictory entities.
The land trust began in earnest in September last year to try to get the city to buy the 120 acres of the then-launched Hathaway property for $1.65 million. Many executive sessions were held by the Board of Selectmen with no outward progress.
First selector Kevin Seery said Friday that the Selectman board in executive session this week had allowed Seery and selector Dan Cunningham to meet with members of the land trust to discuss their proposal. He said he was coordinating a meeting to include attorneys representing the city and the land trust.
The Hathaway plot, which sits on an aquifer supplying one of the city’s wells, includes approximately 3,000 feet of waterfront on Pattagansett Lake and the Pattagansett River. It has featured prominently in the city’s overall conservation plan since 2009.
Hathaway Farm LLC paid $1.05 million more than a year ago before carving out nearly 20 acres and selling the rest to the land trust. Former Finance Board Chairman and Land Trust Member Steve Harney is the LLC’s spokesperson.
“We’re going to get into a lender or mortgage holder position,” Harney said in September. “I think what we’re going to do is give them the opportunity to get a conclusive answer from the city as to whether they want to participate.”
Harney, the ‘conservation middleman’, said that if the land trust could not reach an agreement, the mortgage holder could repossess the property – but he added ‘that is by no means the aim”.
“If that doesn’t work, we will provide affordable housing,” he said.
The state’s Affordable Housing Act makes it easier for developers to obtain zoning permits for larger developments than they would otherwise get, as long as at least 30% of the units are reserved for reduced rent for people with low and moderate incomes.
“At least the land trust has a chance to protect it,” he said. “If they don’t protect it and I take it back because of the bridge financing structure, then we’re just going to get an affordable housing project approved because I think that brings the most value to the land if you’re going to develop it.
He said an interested developer has so far produced a concept for a mix of 175 affordable, market-priced units that could include single-family homes, townhouses and a component for the 55-plus community. .
According to Harney, the value of land is determined by what can be done with it.
“There is no such thing as obscene profit – because the markets define it,” he said. He suggested that the city should have bought the plot before him if they didn’t want to see him make money on it.
Harney said he doesn’t see the idea of affordable housing as a threat or a bargaining tactic.
“There’s a huge demand for that,” he said of the housing options people can afford. “So is it a horrible thing?” I don’t think that’s the case.
He said he was ready to work with the land trust to give them time to secure funds to repay the loan, but stressed there was a real urgency.
“They have their feet on fire,” he said of city officials. “Are we going to be heartless about this? Nope.”
When asked what would happen to the land trust’s share in the nature reserve if the town did not buy it, East Lyme Land Trust chairman Ronald Luich replied “we will spend to Plan C, which we haven’t developed yet”.
Luich and East Lyme Land Trust vice-chairman Art Carlson said it made sense for them to sell the Oswegatchie Hills property as it does not meet the group’s goal of preserving the water supply. water as the Hathaway property does.
Carlson noted that there are no conservation easements on most of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve land trust portion.
“That means, in principle, the land trust or whoever owns the deed can sell it to whoever they want,” he said. “It seems like a good time to talk about the city buying this to make Oswegatchie Hills whole.”
He said city ownership provides stability and continuity that land trust will not necessarily provide in the future.
“There is no protection on this earth. We don’t know who will be running the land trust in ten years’ time or if it will have merged with another entity, he said.
The reserve is bordered to the north by over 230 acres owned by Landmark Development. The Middletown-based company, led by developer Glenn Russo, has been trying for decades to secure an affordable housing development with more than 800 units through the local approvals process. Sewer access issues and public opposition based on environmental impacts have dominated the long, contentious and unfinished battle.
Proponents of the Oswegatchie Hills Reservation have maintained from the start that their goal was to acquire Russo’s property. This year, State Senator Paul Formica unsuccessfully appealed to the State Bond Commission for $10 million “to purchase two hundred and forty-three acres to expand the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve.”
Kris Lambert, president of Friends of Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, said the land trust never contacted her organization to use the property as collateral.
“The hills are endangered,” she said.