Land trust looks to buy town-owned property in Easton, protecting it from future development

Easton — A piece of town-owned property may have new stewards as a local land trust awaits state funding to purchase the majority of it.

First Selectman David Bindelglass said the Aspetuck Land Trust is looking to buy approximately 19 acres of property on South Park Avenue, which is currently part of a 29-acre lot owned by the town.

Bindelglass said the town bought the property in 2008 for $6 million with the goal of preserving it from development and keeping it as open space. Since it was purchased, he said, there have been multiple proposals for what to do with the land.

“At one point the selectman voted to accept a proposal from Sacred Heart (University) to build a swimming pool and fields,” he said, later noting that proposal was in 2014. “That was ready to go forward until Sacred Heart pulled out.”

Bindelglass said there have not been any real changes or plans for the property since, adding in 2017 an outside group failed to obtain grant funding to purchase and preserve the land.

That changed when he took office in 2019.

First, the South Park Advisory Committee was set up to look at options for the land. Secondly, the town identified an opportunity to work with the Aspetuck Land Trust to get a state grant to enable the trust to purchase part of the land.

Bindelglass said the land trust is looking to buy the most ecologically sensitive part of property, which tracks the Mill River and is wooded. He said the other 10 acres are primarily flat meadow and could potentially be developed.

“At the time the [grant] application was put in, there was some concern that we had already failed to get a similar grant to purchase the whole property,” he said, further explaining the reasoning the trust is not looking to buy the entire property.

David Brant, the land trust’s executive director, said the grant has been approved but the organization has not received the money yet, adding it is also still working through some details with the town. He said the grant is for $188,000 and the property is selling for $470,000. The trust will most likely make up the difference.

Brant said the Aspetuck Land Trust is interested in preserving the South Park Avenue property for a myriad of reasons, but one primary aspect is its status as a class one trout management area. He said it is one of nine such areas in the entire state, and it needs to be protected.

“There’s naturally recurring brook trout population there, which is kind of neat,” he said. “It’s incredibly environmentally sensitive.”

The land trust would like to buy the remaining acreage of the property, Brant said, but it may take time to raise funds to do so. He noted the organization has a page on its website dedicated to the land.

“It does fall within our green corridor, which is essentially a 40,000 acre greenbelt that we’ve weaved in the region,” he said.

The Green Corridor will extend through Fairfield, Westport, Weston, Easton, Wilton and Redding.

Bindelglass said the town is pursuing this deal, but it’s not the end of the town’s involvement in the property.

He said residents have suggested the deal is “part of some clandestine plan” to go back to Sacred Heart or other groups to develop the rest of the property.

Notably, this issue came up during the recent election, with mailers from the Citizens for Responsible Government stating that Bindeglass attempted to sell the land to Sacred Heart without following due process or informing the public.

A spokesperson for Sacred Heart said the university has no plans to purchase the property.

Bindelglass said the mailer’s theory makes no sense, noting he championed the passage of an ordinance that requires residents vote to approve any sale, purchase or lease of land on the part of the town. The ordinance was approved by the Board of Selectmen on Sept. 1 and adopted by town referendum on Sept. 21.

“That ordinance makes it impossible for us to sell that land to be developed without a town-wide vote,” he said, adding even selling a portion of the land to the land trust will require a public hearing and a vote.

While the committee talked to different entities, including Sacred Heart, during their process of looking at uses for the land, Bindeglass said he was not involved other than being informed that they were happening.

The committee’s final report found the “most beneficial” use for the land was preservation. Other uses, such as a solar farm or town pool and recreation area, were found to be unfeasible in that location.

The report does note committee members reviewed feasibility studies for commercial development on the property. One was for university housing for graduate students while the other was for a senior independent living facility.

“Neither organization could prioritize their projects into full proposals due to their concentration on pandemic related matters,” the report says. “When the management team of the respective organizations have sufficient capacity, it is likely that attractive proposals will be presented to the town for consideration.”

The town could vote to sell the land to Sacred Heart, Bindelglass said, but it is highly unlikely. Still, he said, it would not have made sense for him to champion the ordinance if selling the land secretly was his plan.

The plan to sell a large portion of the property to the Aspetuck Land Trust is in everybody’s best interest, Bindelglass said, as the land can never be developed after the organization acquires it. He also noted the land trust would do a better job than the town at maintaining the property, all while the town sees some return on investment.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com