Editorial: What exactly is ‘open space?’

Town Councilor Dawn Miceli said that residents felt “hoodwinked” in 2015, the last time that the Open Space Committee asked for $2 million in a referendum then turned around and purchased “development rights” for a golf course with half the funding. Now that the council has agreed to start drafting another referendum for open space money, we think there should be some discussion about what exactly we mean by “open space.”

In 2015, there seemed to be very little public discussion about development rights before the vote. The wording seemed to be almost slipped into the referendum, and that might be the reason some felt “hoodwinked.” No definition was added to the glossary of terms when the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) was drafted in 2016. During a poll of residents, conservation issues were ranked No. 1 for residents with open space issues at the top of the list. But nowhere in the POCD, or the most recent Open Space Plan (OSP) is there a definition of the term “open space.”  We think that’s the root of the problem.

Perhaps this parody logo might better illustrate the town’s current priorities when it comes to open space land.

The town’s relationship with open space began long before the POCD with the purchase of the Crescent Lake property (200-plus acres) in 1999. The environment was high on residents’ minds in the wake of a Superfund lawsuit. Open space was a commitment to the environment, an alternative to town parks, which seem to devolve into sports facilities with storage sheds, pools, and pavilions blocking out nature.

An old open space pamphlet hangs on the wall in The Observer newsroom (so old that it has the late John Weichsel listed as a committee member). It reads, “Southington’s open space parcels are limited to passive recreation. No motor vehicles, please” and “leave only footprints.” We think that, somewhere along the way, open space began to be thought about differently in different circles.

The shift began innocently enough when parcels on Darling Street—including overgrown tennis courts—were listed as open space in 2005. Next came the purchase of Goat Island as open space in 2007, which included an historical building on the mostly untouched land. That opened the floodgates for classifying an historic train depot as open space in 2010 and adding a garage on Germania Street to the open space ledger because of its proximity to Goat Island. These were all great additions to municipal land, but fit less and less into the original concept of open space.

It seems like “open space” has become something else in the minds of town leaders. In recent years, the council approved a site plan to add permanent toilets at two open space parcels. One councilor even compared the open space restroom project to the bathroom facilities at Recreation Park (two different types of municipal land).

We can see how the disconnect between town planners and open space enthusiasts about what “open space” means culminated in the purchase of the rights to a golf course without any ability for the public to use the land for passive recreation. Golf course development rights would never have fit the definition of open space in that old, tattered pamphlet in our office. “No motor vehicles, please” would mean no cars, no motorboats, no ATVs…and no golf carts.

We think open space should be defined before more funding is requested.

To comment on this editorial or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.

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