The Newtown Forest Association (NFA), a private, nonprofit land trust, is spearheading a fundraising drive to buy 136 acres off Castle Hill Road, near Taunton Lake, to preserve that property as open space land.
The NFA drive to buy the land is in competition with a local development firm’s proposal to purchase the land for the construction of up to 136 single-family houses in a cluster-style residential complex.
The land trust is seeking to buy 20 Castle Hill Road and 60 Castle Hill Road in the borough from the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation.
The drive to acquire that land comes in response to GLT Development Corporation’s proposal to construct up to 136 cluster-style houses in a layout that would position the homes in an upland area on the site, well away from the environmentally sensitive Taunton Lake.
The Water & Sewer Authority (WSA) has scheduled a public hearing for 7 pm on Thursday, March 21, at the sewage treatment plant office building at 24 Commerce Road on GLT’s proposal to expand the boundaries of the central sanitary sewer district to include the area that would be developed with cluster housing.
However, for that hearing to occur as scheduled, the WSA would first need to receive a letter from the diocese allowing GLT to seek a sewer district expansion for cluster housing.
George L. Trudell II, the president of GLT, declined comment for this story.
In an earlier interview, Mr Trudell stressed that the project is in its early stages and explained that his development proposal would strictly follow the terms of the borough’s Residential Open Space Development (ROSD) zoning regulations.
The Borough Zoning Commission (BZC) created those zoning rules last May in response to the prospect of the diocese property, as well as two other large undeveloped properties in the borough, eventually being developed residentially. ROSD zoning provides an alternative to conventional subdivision development.
The diocese property has R-1 (Residential) zoning, which requires a minimum one-acre lot size if a conventional residential subdivision were to be built there.
NFA members and residents living near the proposed development site attended a Borough Board of Burgesses session on March 12 to register their opposition to the homebuilding project and to endorse the land being preserved as undeveloped acreage.
In a March 13 statement, Borough Warden James Gaston said that the burgesses who attended the session acknowledged the value of preserving the entire diocese property due to its environmentally sensitive nature. Mr Gaston said he expects that the diocese will continue to work with those groups that want to preserve the property.
In a document distributed at that session, the NFA said the Castle Hill properties represent “an essential land preservation opportunity.”
The two diocese parcels have a total appraised value of $3.66 million. The land is undeveloped except for a house and a shed, according to the NFA. Also, the two properties are either contiguous with or near six other properties that have been designated as open space, which total about 65 acres, according to the NFA.
The NFA lists numerous reasons why preserving the diocesan properties is important. The land is near Main Street and views of the landmarks there would be marred by the presence of a housing complex, according to the NFA.
The presence of a housing complex would increase the demands for local public services including schools and police, effectively nullifying any increase in the local tax base, according to the NFA.
Also, the presence of a housing complex would add more traffic to the congested town center roads, the group adds.
Under the NFA’s fundraising program, there would be several elements.
Besides possible public funding, private funds would be obtained from the Aquarion Water Company, from the sale of a homestead on the site, various private donations, and from the sale of a newly-created building lot for the construction of new Newtown Hook & Ladder firehouse, according to the NFA.
First Selectman Pat Llodra said that if Hook & Ladder were to seek a site for a new firehouse at the diocese property, near Johnnie Cake Lane, then town funds which have already been designated to aid the Hook & Ladder firehouse project might be employed.
NFA President Bob Eckenrode said, “We’re working diligently to supply the diocese with a counteroffer” to buy the property which is rich in natural resources.
The site is much more valuable to the community as a piece of open space land than as a development site, Mr Eckenrode said.
Mr Eckenrode said the NFA has had talks with the diocese about the prospect of the NFA buying the property.
A diocesan official involved in those talks could not be reached for comment.
Mr Eckenrode said that the NFA’s acquisition of the property would represent an opportunity for the town, its residents, and the church to work together toward a positive result.
The NFA president said he does not consider it inevitable that the property would be developed. “This property is too valuable as open space” to allow development to occur, he said.
“We’re busy as beavers,” he said of the group’s efforts to preserve the site.
NFA Treasurer Guy Peterson said, “The ball is still rolling in the effort to raise enough funds to buy this.”
“It’s a breathtaking piece of property” that holds high meadows as well as a forested area to serve as an environmental buffer for the lake, he said.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity because once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said.
Mr Peterson said, “I’m very glad that the diocese is working with us,” but added that it is unclear if the NFA would have sufficient time to raise enough money to buy the land.
Aquarion Makes An Offer
Donald Morrissey, Aquarion’s chief financial officer, said that Aquarion would contribute $400,000 toward the NFA’s drive to buy the land.
Aquarion is the local public water supply company. It bought its water system from United Water last year.
“We see this as preservation opportunity,” Mr Morrissey said.
Through a $400,00 contribution, Aquarion would obtain certain easements and/or acreage at the site through which it would have good access to the area where its water storage tank is located off Reservoir Road for possible future infrastructure improvements, he said.
“We see ourselves as a partner that can help provide a solution that’s better for the community,” he said.
In a statement, Charles Firlotte, Aquarion president and CEO, said, “In addition to our mission of providing our customers with safe clean water, we are also stewards of the environment. We take this responsibility seriously, as evidenced by the almost 20,000 acres we maintain with the Nature Conservancy and Connecticut Forest and Parks Association, in other parts of the state. In addition, this will also allow Aquarion the opportunity to use this for future water rights, if necessary.”
Newtown Hook & Ladder representatives could not be reached for comment on the prospect of a construction site for a new firehouse being created on the diocese property near Johnnie Cake Lane.
Leyla Nichols, a board member of The Animal Center, said that the animal care group would ally itself with the group known as the Catherine Hubbard Animal Sanctuary is seeking to create an animal sanctuary at the property. Catherine Hubbard, a first-grader, was one of the victims of the Sandy Hook School shooting incident on December 14.
The Animal Center’s volunteer group’s sanctuary would be open to the public and provide educational programs, Ms Nichols said.