The Milford Board of Aldermen voted unanimously Monday night to buy a 6.98 acre parcel of land at 701 North Street for $1.6 million to use as open space and to allow the city-owned golf course to expand.

The aldermen debated for quite some time about the purchase, which will be largely paid through open space dollars and grants. But their debate did not focus on whether to buy the land, but rather whether they should have bought it several years ago. Republicans argued that the city could have bought the parcel for $950,000 three years ago, while the Democrats argued that the city was not in a position financially to buy it then.

The two parties also argued about the reason the Democrats support the purchase this time around. Republicans said the mayor and city Democrats are only agreeing to the purchase to block a proposed affordable housing plan for that site. But Democratic Alderman Nick Veccharelli said the affordable housing plan has nothing to do with it, and that it just makes sense economically and strategically to buy the open space now.
Could have been housing
The purchase does indeed put an end to plans to create a 63-house community with an affordable component on the property.

The current owner is Stone Preserve LLC, of 500 Boston Post Road, Milford, of which Arnold Peck is the manager. Stone Preserve applied in August 2014 for a conventional five-lot subdivision on the seven-acre property, and then withdrew that application in October 2014.

In January 2015, Stone Preserve applied to the Inland-Wetlands Agency for a review of plans calling for a 63-house community with an affordable component under the 8-30g law, and then withdrew those plans in May 2015.

The developer bought the land for $950,000 in July 2013. The current city assessment is $1.36 million.

Steven Johnson, the city’s open space and natural resources manager, has spoken in favor of the city purchase several times. He told the Planning and Zoning Board last month, “This parcel has been recognized as an important strategic acquisition by the Golf Course Commission and has been supported by the Mayor’s Open Space Advisory Committee.”

Johnson said the city’s 2012 Plan of Conservation and Development’s Action plan places a priority on purchasing land that is contiguous to other open space. In addition to sharing a border with the golf course, Johnson said the property has about 3.15 acres of orchards.
Residents support purchase
A number of people spoke in favor of buying the land during Monday’s Board of Aldermen’s meeting.

Former alderman and mayoral candidate Paula Smith, stating what Republican aldermen would repeat throughout the evening, said she supported the purchase but found it “disheartening” the city didn’t buy the property when it was up for sale in 2013. Although Alderman Veccharelli later said that no firm price was ever discussed, Smith said the city could have gotten it for $950,000.

Several speakers, including Tim Chaucer, a member of a group trying to prevent sale of the city-owned Stowe property, said they supported buying the North Street site but compared it to the Stowe property in Walnut Beach, which the city has been talking about selling to a cooking school owner. Chaucer said it doesn’t make sense to buy one piece of open space on one side of town and sell another in a more densely populated part of the city.

Former City Historian Richard Platt talked about the importance of the North Street parcel, saying there is a historic house on the site, as well as “excellent” barns, which are featured on the Connecticut Barns website.

Michele Kramer of the Milford Preservation Trust talked about the orchards and the site’s link to Mlford’s agricultural past, noting that by buying the land, the city “simultaneously thwarts inappropriate housing.”

The parcel boasts 200 apple trees, plus Sycamore trees and blueberry bushes, said neighbor Jim Monde. He elaborated on the history, pointing out that it was a farm in the 1700s, owned by the Platt family.

“Stone walls border the property and separate the fields,” Monde said.

Barbara Lisman, wife of the late Mayor Fred Lisman, also spoke, urging the aldermen to buy the land. She said 60 to 70 houses would “destroy the whole area.”
Paying for the parcel
Alderman Bryan Anderson, Democrat, offered a breakdown of where money will come from to buy the land: $430,000 will come from an open space account funded from the sale of the rear of the Downs house on North Street; $27,000 from a Mondo Pond Beaverbrook account funded through an Iroquois gas line grant.

Another $269,000 will come from an open space fund that developers pay into, and  $279,000 will come from a Beaverbrook upkeep fund. (The city won’t need that fund because there is a grant for $500,000 that the open space manager has secured to pay to rebuild the boardwalk that runs through Beaverbrook, plus other improvements on the land.)

Another $150,000 will come from a blighted property line item, which represents liens paid on blighted properties.

The golf course open space fund, fed by golf fees at the city-owned Orchard Golf Course, will be tapped for $161,000. Another $75,000 will come from a sustainability conservation fund, and $209,000 will come from the city’s undesignated fund balance.

Mayor Ben Blake and Democrats pointed out that only the $209,000 from the undesignated account represents actual taxpayer dollars, and they said that could be recouped if the city were to break the parcel into pieces and sell the house.

Peck initially wanted $5 million for the North Street land. Jonathan Berchem, Milford city attorney, said he and the owner negotiated, and the price went from $5 million, to $3 million to $2.5 million, to $2 million to $1.75 million before they finally agreed upon a price of $1.6 million. “This was his drop dead number,” Berchem said.

The debate

Alderman Anthony Giannattasio and fellow Republicans insisted the city could have bought the land three years ago, while the Democrats said there was little money in the funds that are being tapped today to pay for the purchase.

Responding to accusations that the Democrats simply want to thwart an affordable housing development, Veccharelli said it has “nothing to do with 8-30g.”

“We can’t buy all these properties,” he said, referring to a number of affordable, 8-30g projects before the city. “It would be impossible.”

Click here to read earlier, related story.