Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Connecticut Made a Bad Deal When It Traded Land To Allow Denser Development in Madison Next to Hammonasset

The head of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection was apparently so eager to see an old airport next to the state's busiest park developed into offices or houses that he pretty much gave away state land to allow access to the site, despite a state policy against doing so. So says the Hartford Courant, in an example of first-rate reporting aided by first-rate digging on the part of environmentalists who don't want to see the land developed.

The land that the state gave away opened the former Griswold Airport, which is 42 acres and is next to Hammonasset State Park in Madison, to the potential for much more intensive development than otherwise would have been allowed. In exchange for the access, the state received a conservation easement on one-fifth of an acre.

The property is now being considered for a 127-unit housing development, called Madison Landing, proposed by Leyland Alliance. I've praised it in the past, here, because it represents a break from the suburban sprawl that I think has marred much of the landscape in Connecticut and beyond. I've also said that if it would damage Hammonasset, opponents should concentrate on persuading the state to buy it rather than in reducing the density of the development. I don't think the news about the land swap changes my opinion of the development but it does strengthen the argument for state acquisition.

Here's what Kim Martineau of the Courant reports about the land swap:

The former DEP commissioner, Arthur Rocque Jr., had approved the easement exchange without public notification, appraisals or justifying its compatibility with park purposes, the council found. Rocque, it turns out, had ignored a policy crafted by the DEP and the Council on Environmental Quality in 1990.

Although Rocque approved the land swap, he did so despite hearing strong opposition based on sound reasoning from his staff. From the Courant

A Branford developer in 1996 proposed building a golf course on the site. To acquire the needed frontage on Route 1, the developer asked the DEP for a land swap that internally drew condemnation.

Roger Kinderman, supervisor of Hammonasset, estimated that the state land was worth "hundreds of thousands of dollars," and suggested that the state buy the airport.

"Perhaps since we already own the only access to this airport, we should buy the airport and develop an expanded, modern campground which could also be Connecticut's only salt water boating access," he proposed.

The wildlife division worried that development might degrade the state nature preserve nearby. "Exchanging road frontage owned by DEP would only help facilitate the encroachment on the natural area preserve," wrote Peter Bogue, assistant director.

"I do not see the benefit to the state on this one," echoed James Moulton, an inland fisheries director. "But it might be worth it if the trade includes all the marsh/wetland abutting the Hammonasset River."

If I were the guys at Leyland Alliance, I might have my attorney make a call today to see if the state is interested in buying the old airport, for a fair price. And the people in Madison who think the development, and who no doubt support the concept of private property and private property rights, ought to follow that with calls to the governor and their state representatives to come up with the money.

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