Land-use issues are sensitive in our crowded city. Recent controversial applications to the Planning and Zoning Board have shown that people here highly value parks, farm-fields, wetlands, conservation easements, city-owned open space, and whatever other landscapes in Milford are still natural.
Real-estate agents call them “amenities”; long-time residents call them “Milford’s character”; newcomers call them “a great environment for raising kids.”
Almost everyone says they favor protecting such landscapes, but when times get tough both private and public owners realize that land is the easiest natural resource to “monetize,” and…there goes the neighborhood.
Same for the state. This month, the state Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published a 10-page report entitled “Preserved But Maybe Not: The Impermanence of State Conservation Lands.”
It begins: “When Connecticut residents visit a beautiful state park or wildlife area they often are contented by the knowledge that the land is set aside for forests, wildlife and all people for all time. Except usually it isn’t.”
Continuing, the report points out that the legislature and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) actually have the power to exchange state lands, and have considered transferring hundreds of acres to private commercial interests or, occasionally, municipalities, in swaps for substitute land or money. Ever since 1990 DEEP has had a Land Exchange Policy that defines criteria for an acceptable exchange, but the policy hasn’t always been properly applied. As CEQ notes: 1) state lands proposed for exchange are typically described as worthless, in some way, rather than as having a specific value for conservation; and 2) information necessary to assess their worth for conservation typically isn’t made available until late in the decision-making process.
Not all the proposed exchanges are approved. Every time one is, however, public expectations are frustrated, and volunteer efforts to improve state lands decline. Worst of all, the increasing actual value of protected state lands for resilience to climate change, especially rising sea-levels, is lost and ignored.
CEQ recommends an action plan as follows. 1. The legislature should standardize a procedure for considering the exchange of state conservation lands that is transparent and incorporates necessary information as early as possible. 2. DEEP should have at least data sheets readily available for all its protected properties describing each one’s natural resources and conservation purposes — especially original deeded restrictions on the property — with certain types of property ranked high in conservation value by default.
3. The state map (developed 2000-2013) of all protected open space properties in Connecticut owned by DEEP, municipalities, land trusts, and other groups should be updated to include data on the level of protection granted to each property.
4. Certain enabling bills should be passed, one encouraging every municipality to demonstrate the same concern for its own protected open space as the state should have for theirs. Even without the passage of this last bill, though, “Preserved But Maybe Not” should be required reading for any Milford land-use official or board member.