Council begins drafting $2 million open space referendum

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At Monday’s council meeting, Democratic councilor Dawn Miceli proposed a referendum question to be included on the November 2018 ballot. On behalf of the Open Space Committee, Miceli started the process to include a request for $2 million to purchase open space.

With the committee’s approval, the action came before the Town Council to decide if the Town Manager Mark Sciota would begin meeting with the bond counsel to craft the referendum question. The action was unanimously approved.

The approval is just the first step in the process. Next, the question needs to be drafted and returned to the council. Third, it goes before the Planning and Zoning Commission as outlined in Section 8-24 of the Connecticut General Statutes. Fourth, it will be reviewed by the Board of Finance with a public hearing. Finally, it returns to the council for more public hearings and a vote to add it to the ballot.

“We want to be able to pursue potential open space properties, to save development, and to conserve land in our town for its overall aesthetic, for natural resources, for wildlife, for cultural value, all of these good things in an expedient manner,” said Miceli. “For us to achieve that, we would need to have monies within our coffers.”

She noted the referendum process is a lengthy one, and the committee felt it was appropriate to start it early.

Discussion ensued between council members regarding development rights. A $2 million referendum question for open space was approved in 2015 that included the purchase of open space and/or development rights. Miceli said the committee was not seeking to include such rights in the referendum this time around.

Councilor Mike Riccio said including development rights in the referendum would provide the council with “another tool in our tool belt.”

“We don’t know what the future is going to bring as far as opportunities to preserve land,” said Riccio. “At the end of the day, 99 percent of people just want to stop housing. They want to drive by a piece of land and see green. They don’t want the school budget and road cleaning budgets to go up, or to sit at a traffic jam at a stop light.”

Officials want to consider the $2 million for property purchases, but the money might also be used to secure development rights to stop future development on certain parcels.

“We need to forget about elections and look 100 years down the road and keep that tool,” said Riccio. “At least the council will have the option to say no. If we tie our hands, we don’t have that option.”

Miceli said the only time the development rights verbiage was included in an open space referendum was in 2015. She reported that during last year’s campaign, residents expressed to her that they felt “hoodwinked,” that they voted in favor of the referendum but didn’t realize they would “purchase a business.”

Most of the funds that were approprriated by residents in the 2015 referendum (in a 5,599 to 2,727 vote) were used to purchase development rights at Hawks Landing Country Club. Although the land can no longer be developed into housing developments, etc., the property currently is in private hands so it isn’t open to the public.

Ultimately the council came to agreement that further discussion would ensue when the referendum returns to their agenda. They unanimously gave Sciota the nod to meet with the bond counsel. The referendum will return to the council twice more before and has many stops along the way before it can end up on the ballot.

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