Rick Newton is a Vice President and Chairman of the Stewardship Committee of the Avalonia Land Conservancy. His letter on Open Space was published on August 4 in The Mystic River Press, and the full text follows:

Recent news reports regarding the concerns of Stonington citizens about the Mary Hall/Greenhaven Road proposed subdivision show that the Town of Stonington continues to struggle with residential sprawl. Prior to this latest proposal there was the Perkins Farm development and before that the Meehan (now Toll Brothers) development in Old Mystic.

There are certain to be more citizen complaints as more large tracts of land are purchased for residential development. This should be no surprise. The 2004 Plan of Conservation and Development stated: “Stonington needs to manage the fiscal impacts of growth while recognizing that residential ‘ sprawl’ and commercial ‘ strip’ development threaten Stonington’s character and quality of life.” Each of these developments, and many smaller residential developments, approved over the past few years by the Planning and Zoning Commission, have a perceived negative effect on Stonington’s character and quality of life and could add financial pressure on future fiscal budgets.

A landowner/developer has a right to make a profit from their property as long as the development complies with the zoning regulations of the town. However, the developers should not be allowed to maximize their personal profits on the backs of the taxpayer, which is what each of these developments could do. Residential development brings with it a substantial future fiscal burden to the town, as inevitably a large percentage of the homeowners will have school age children. In Stonington, it costs about $ 12,000 per year to educate a child. Taxes on a $400,000 home will only yield $4,400 per year in income. The break-even point to the town, ignoring any additional services costs, is more than 30 years for one student.

The town’s 2007 Open Space Plan, the POCD and a 2006 study by the Trust for Public Land show that permanently protecting open space is a high priority for residents. The town has an ambitious goal of permanently protecting 30 percent or more of acreage in town by the year 2020. Preservation of large tracts of undeveloped land and having open space subdivisions built rather than conventional subdivisions will be required.

Current regulations and financial policies in the town do not encourage preservation of large tracts of contiguous open space. The PZC has little choice but to approve proposals presented that meet the zoning regulations. Citizen comments at public hearings are usually “too little, too late” with only modifications to the developer’s plans being achieved rather than outright preservation.

So what can the town do? Here are a few suggestions: First, add an economic impact/financial analysis requirement to the zoning regulations. Any proposed subdivision of five or more units (exempting incentive [ affordable] housing that would need to comply with state statutes) would have to be revenue neutral to the town over a 30year period. Adopt the following regulation: Economic Impact: The proposed subdivision shall not adversely affect the economic prosperity of the town including the cost of providing municipal services. The PZC/planning department can develop a formula based on current and forecasted town metrics. If the development has a projected negative effect on the finances of the town, the developer

can either offset with a commercial development in another area of town or provide a payment in-kind with the funding going into the town’s rainy day fund to pay for future tax shortfalls caused by the development. Open space subdivision proposals could have a less stringent requirement in order to promote the preservation of larger tracts of open space.

Second, have an immediate general bond authorization of $5 to $8 million to create an open space fund for the town and authorize annual replenishment of the fund until the open space goals are met. The time to oppose development is when the property first becomes available for sale through purchase – not when the proposal is presented for approval to the PZC. With bond funding the Conservation Commission can work with the two local land trusts and other organizations to augment the bond funding through grants and private donations to allow for planned open space acquisition.

Naysayers will state that, with the economy as it is, now is no time to seek bonding for what they consider “non-essential” projects. However, there is no better time to seek debt financing, as interest rates will never be lower. If the aforementioned subdivisions and other large tracts of land currently for sale in town do get developed into residential housing, the cost to the taxpayer either in higher taxes or loss of services will be far greater than the cost of bonding.

Third, redirect the focus of the economic development commission marketing away from large open space tracts and first focus on re-use of existing properties. The current rehabilitation of the former Hubbell plant near Lord’s Point is an excellent example of the type of development the town needs. Properties such as the soon to be vacant Yardney facility, the former Mystic Color Lab, the old mills in Pawcatuck and the many vacant storefronts scattered around town are all begging for redevelopment.

Preserving land in Stonington is expensive, but the per capita benefit is high due to higher number of people living in and visiting the town who will use the preserved properties. The taxpayers need to become more pro-active in getting the elected leaders and citizen volunteers of commissions of our town to preserve open space if the quality of life that we have today is to be maintained. Once open space is developed, it is gone forever.

Rick Newton Vice-President / Stewardship Committee Chairman Avalonia Land Conservancy, Inc