GROTON — A public meeting put on by the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments June 15, 2006, demonstrated a strong consensus favoring conservation among those attending.
Speakers in the audience of about 30 at the Town Hall Annex expressed concern about sprawl, loss of open space, pressure on farms, and a deteriorating quality of life. The meeting was held to gather information for a new regional plan of conservation and development.
A poll in which meeting participants spent play money on various projects showed that 50% of the dollars were spent on conservation — twice as much as that spent on what was voted the second most pressing need, infrastructure.
SCCOG Executive Director James Butler, for his part, stressed the need for what he called “balance” in weighing conservation against development. He said, for example, that lack of affordable housing in various communities was increasing road traffic by requiring workers to drive further and further to work.
Mr. Butler said that the question of whether to conserve or develop often depends on one’s perspective. He said that much support for the controversial proposed “Utopia” entertainment project in Preston came from people “who live in this area and need the work in order to stay here.” The project had heavy backing from organized labor. Many men showed up in union garb at Preston meetings on the project ahead of the town referendum last month that approved “Utopia.” At least some union attendees reportedly were not residents of Preston.
One audience member at the Groton SCCOG meeting, a doctor from North Stonington, cited with regret the disappearance of forests and farmland to housing projects built by developers on speculation. He asked whether a prohibition on such speculative building would be possible. Mr. Butler did not address the general issue of sprawl that was raised by the question but instead quickly dismissed the suggestion by saying it would be illegal.
Joan Smith, a director of the Groton Open Space Association, said during the meeting that she had grown a bit cynical about plans of conservation and development because “development seems to gallop along, while conservation goes nowhere” following adoption of various plans.
Earlier, Ms. Smith had read a statement expressing citizens’ concern “about the unrelenting pace of development, the loss of natural resources, farms, forests and open spaces, and the diminishing quality of our lives, as indicated by increasing traffic congestion and water, air, noise and light pollution.” She said, “The cost of services and, consequently, the level of taxes continue to climb, despite frequent, and sometimes desperate, efforts to ‘increase the tax base,’ by encouraging ever more construction.”
She urged SCCOG to:
–adopt a goal of at least 21% clearly protected open space
–develop a regional plan to protect drinking watershed lands
–encourage state legislation to upgrade regulatory tools of land-use commissions
–promote greenbelts between towns
–protect coastal resources and associated wetlands
–inventory natural and historical resources
–promote alternative transportation to reduce traffic congestion and reliance on habitat-fragmenting roads.
On the issue of watershed protection, which also was raised by Sidney VanZandt of Noank, Mr. Butler said he believes a “regional solution” to this problem will be forthcoming.
Gary Piszczek, a farmer from Preston, told SCCOG officials that farmers will be placed under serious pressure by the “Utopia” project. He said the project will generate land speculation, as well as increase vehicular traffic that will make it difficult for farmers to move equipment around. Mr. Piszczek said that he has tried to sell development rights on his farm to the state, but the state “won’t buy.” He said, “You could not support Utopia if you understood the land.” He said that with costs of farming high and prices low, “Utopia” now is contributing to a “perfect storm” for farmers.
He said that farmers’ opinions on planning have been ignored and there is a danger they “will talk with their feet” by moving out. He said, “Society is telling us that it wants gated communities and golf courses.”
Town Councilor Paulann Sheets commented that local farms are important–in part for “food security” in the event of an emergency that would interrupt supplies from outside the area. That consideration could form the legal basis for protection of farmland, she speculated.
Genevieve Cerf, GOSA treasurer and a Representative Town Meeting representative, called for property tax relief that doesn’t depend on expanding the grand list. She also urged legislation to “provide strict, unambiguous guidance and enforcement of conservation goals,” which have been neglected in the rush to add to tax rolls. Ms. Cerf suggested that elected boards — not appointed by the town administration, as they are in Groton — select lands for conservation and that towns and the state be given the first shot at purchasing large tracts of land.
Ms. Cerf said legislation needs to be passed to provide for funds to acquire open space, either through a small sales tax or a portion of the real estate conveyance tax. She also criticized zoning regulations that allow floating zones and active adult zones that encourage destructive high-density development. She said action is needed “NOW. We are running out of land at an alarming rate.”
Wendy MacFarland of Mystic, a teacher at Grasso Tech, said many of her students are highly discouraged by the deterioration of their environment and intend to move after graduation.
Syma Ebbin, of the City of Groton, urged the SCCOG to provide a more regional perspective to help save the environment of Southeastern Connecticut. She said most agencies only “focus on one project after another.” She urged SCCOG to provide an integrated picture of “cumulative effects” of all projects.
Molly McKay, editor of the rail transportation electronic newsletter DESTINATION:FREEDOM, called for a public/private partnership to support the financially strapped New London railroad station, which she said has strong potential as a rail-ferry-bus-auto hub. She said reduction of auto dependence could help to develop the area “in more compact ways.”
Nancy D’Estang of Groton said regional planning was essential but it had to be intelligent. “The current plans and rhetoric for development in this area do not match the reality here… Look at New London, where highways and shopping centers have destroyed community life and local businesses–and replaced vitality with expensive social services and a high mill rate,” she said.
Ms. D’Estang told the SCCOG planners: “Rewrite tax codes; rethink public transportation, energy efficiency, and the economic advantage of quality lives for your residents. Residents do not want nor need most of what is proposed. Why provide cheap open land and sacrosanct natural resources for the latest developers’ territorialism.”
Mr. Butler said at one point that protected open space in Groton is 21% or more, an estimate that sometimes is used but that includes land whose status could be changed. Jim Furlong, a GOSA director, replied that the correct figure for Groton’s officially and securely protected open space is 11%, according to a booklet that accompanied the town’s 2002 Plan of Conservation and Development. The booklet is #11 and is available at the Groton Public Library on Route 117. It is dated Feb. 8, 1999, but is thought to be the latest and most authoritative comprehensive estimate of “perceived” and “preserved” open space in Groton. The report defines “preserved” open space as land that is municipally dedicated to open space or is held by the state or land trusts. (Disclosure: Jim Furlong wrote this report.)
One point of apparent wide agreement at the meeting is that the heavy financial dependence of Connecticut’s municipalities on property taxes needs to be reduced.