PZC approves 8-24 referral for open space referendum

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The Planning and Zoning Commission approved an 8-24 referral to the Board of Finance for an ordinance appropriating $2 million for acquisition of land for Open Space purchases. If the BOF, then the Town Council approve the ordinance, it will appear as a referendum question on the November 2018 election ballots.

The PZC’s close vote of 4-3 narrowly approved the referral. Commissioners were torn on the referendum’s verbiage. What the Open Space Committee has requested does not include development rights.

Voters in Southington have passed three Open Space referendums in the past, and the most recent one in 2015 was for $2 million and included development rights. The first two did not.

Purchasing development rights ensures that land owned or used for another purpose (such as water company lands, golf courses, cemeteries, private schools, ski areas, and orchards) could not be developed in the future. Southington already had one of its three privately-owned golf courses affected by land development.

After the last referendum, the committee used $990,000 to purchase development rights on Hawk’s Landing Country Club. By purchasing those rights, the town prevents a subdivision of the 25-property lot, and ensures expansion of the property as anything other than a golf course or banquet facility is prohibited.

Some voters reportedly expressed concern to Town Councilors and Planning and Zoning Commissioners since then, saying they felt “hoodwinked” when they believed they approved a referendum for open space purchases, but instead “bought a business.”

“We are hopeful that we will not include the verbiage [of development rights],” said Open Space Committee chair Dawn Miceli. “It does not mean that we are not in favor of development rights. Only a handful of parcels targeted that have development rights potential to purchase. We are hopeful we would have separate, transparent referendums for each of those parcels, should they become available and offered to the town. Development rights are a special tool and deserve special consideration by our voters.”

PZC Commissioner Paul Chaplinsky (R) voted against the 8-24 referral.

“Open Space is part of our Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD),” he said. “I support the referendum, but I don’t believe development rights are independent pieces that are not tied to Open Space. It’s a separate tool, but it’s part of Open Space.”

Chaplinsky said the rights are a tool to use to get in front of issues before they arise. He pointed out development rights are included in the POCD as a preservation tool, so a referendum question that excludes the rights is “in direct conflict with our POCD.”

PZC Commissioner Jen Clock (R) voted in approval for the referral. “We’ve put it on the record here,” she said. “I feel personally okay approving this for the Town Council to take into consideration. I trust they will do what’s right for the town.”

Robert Hammersley (R) also approved the referral, stating the rights were an important tool to have available.

“What it means is that we support defective preserving of open space,” Hammersley said. “It doesn’t mean they have to or don’t have to use it. I don’t think anyone has excluded it. I think there’s acknowledgment that there’s a tool for us.”

Dagmara Scalise (D) stated as a citizen of Southington, she would want to know if the town was outright buying a plot of land or using development rights. She added having it all in one question “skews the view.”

Chaplinsky strongly opposed the exclusion of development rights in the referendum question.

“By us favoring this and excluding development rights, I believe, is two-faced,” he said. “I ask you guys to really consider this. It’s a big issue for our town. Don’t rush it.”

PZC chair Mike DelSanto (R) also spoke in disfavor of the language. “What’s the harm of leaving it in as ‘including and not limited to purchase of development rights?’ By leaving that piece out, I believe, is in direct contrast to our POCD.”

Chaplinsky, DelSanto and James Morelli (D) voted in disfavor of the referral to the Board of Finance. Clock, Hammersley, Scalise and Susan Locks (D) approved it.

The BOF held a public hearing on the ordinance on Wednesday, April 11, then voted on it. The Observer’s weekly deadline is Tuesday. See next week’s edition for a report on the hearing. From there, if approved, it will return to the Town Council for consideration.

 To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.

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