Historic property purchase up to voters

ORANGE - Residents are being asked to decide whether or not to purchase 43 acres of open space in the center of town in a townwide referendum Jan. 31. If they agree to the purchase it will cost them $4.3 million.

If residents reject the purchase then large size homes potentially 5,000 to 6,000 square feet, will be constructed there, according to the application filed with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The first anyone knew the property, known as the Ewen Farm or Meadowbrook Farm, was for sale was in February 2003 when Toll Brothers had a 90-day due diligence option on it. The following week, after Jim Ewen learned of the potential sale, he notified the Board of Selectmen via a letter. That deal fell through when Toll Brothers realized they could not develop the parcel enough. About the same time a moratorium was placed on building projects in excess of 10 homes for a few months.

That December Jim and Sharon Ewen, whose portion of the property is not for sale met with then First Selectman Mitch Goldblatt and the Commissioner of Agriculture to investigate potential sources of funding that might assist the town in purchasing the property.

At that same time, the Ewens organized a walk- through of the property for the Board of Selectmen that was recorded by OGAT. On Feb. 23, 2004, the Ewen family members owning the property for sale offered it to the town for $3 million via e-mail.

The town countered with $1.54 million and negotiations were discontinued. An arbitrator from the Land for Public Trust was asked to intervene to help with additional offers and to communicate with the family, however these offers were less than half of what was being proposed by other interested developers. The property was listed in May 2004 for $4.5 million.

In February 2005 Jim and Sharon Ewen made a formal presentation to the Board of Selectmen and requested they actively pursue purchasing the property or it would be lost for open space. The Ewens also began a telephone and letter campaign to state and federal government representatives.

Over the next year engineering studies were completed and in June 2005 the Ewen family sold the property to Farm River Estates LLC in June 2005 for $3.5 million.

That same month the town offered $3 million for the property but the sale had already been completed.

While negotiations have been off and on the past couple of years this is the first and apparently only opportunity residents will have to voice their opinions.

First Selectman Jim Zeoli, who during the campaign talked about acquiring open space, said the board recently voted to send the issue to taxpayers.

In December the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to send the issue to the residents for their decision. In January that changed to 5 to 1 with Selectman Mitch Goldblatt voting against sending it to the people for their decision.

Goldblatt said he's concerned there was not a full appraisal of the property. The administration has appraised what a typical building lot would be sold for, which is about $410,000. Goldblatt said he's not disputing that the $4.3 million that taxpayers are being asked to approve is the actual appraised value of the land, but he said a full appraisal should be done to confirm that fact.

But First Selectman James Zeoli said that the town has been given a deadline of Jan. 31 to acquire the land.

Goldblatt also said he is uneasy about taxpayers approving the bond authorization without knowing exactly how much state aid will be on the way. Zeoli has stated that the town will likely receive some state aid for the purchase.

"Since the grant process has now been missed our legislators have put forth a bill (for funding)," Zeoli said.

State Rep. Paul Davis, a Democrat, confirmed what Zeoli said.

"We have submitted legislation for $2 million in state funds (HB 6584," Davis said adding that State Rep. Themis Klarides, a Republican and state Sen. Gayle Slossberg, a Democrat all co-sponsored the legislation.

"We will not know until May or June whether the funds will be forthcoming," said Davis explaining the funding would appear on the next legislative budget.

From there it will go to the governor and then the bonding commission for final approval.

"There is a strong effort (in the legislature) from both Democrats and Republicans to set aside $100 million for open space purchases. It's an issue that has come of age as sprawl is spreading," Davis said explaining that more and more fellow legislators are behind funding open space purchases as well as the governor.

Davis is vice chairman of the environmental committee and said he will pay close attention to the bill as it progresses through the process.

Davis said he supports the purchase of the farm.

"When I drive through Orange I like to remember how it was when I moved here 30 years ago."

Zeoli said he envisions the property used by residents in town for varied passive recreational uses.

"I would like to see it opened up for more ice skating and fishing. The Audubon Society already holds bird walks on it twice a year," Zeoli said.

Zeoli said the Open Space Search Committee is working on the towns' greenbelt through the center of Orange and the farm would be included.

Klarides said she believes in preserving the land.

"I am and have always been a huge proponent of open space preservation, evidenced by the money I've worked to acquire for my towns, along with my respective delegations. This property is no different. If the town and the state can figure a way to work together, I believe we should preserve as much open space as possible and my colleagues Rep. Davis and Sen Slossberg and I will work diligently to do our part to help Orange," Klarides said.

Slossberg too said she is behind the purchase.

"Open space is quickly diminishing and we need to maintain as much open space as we can. We had already set aside funding (before) and will do our best to do the same this time (assuming the referendum) passes," Slossberg said.

"I have always been a strong advocate of open space long before I was a legislator," Slossberg said.

Already $2 million in bonds has been set aside for open space, and the funds could be used for the Ewen Farm acquisition.

Dr. Edmund Tucker, president of the Orange Land Trust and chairman of the Orange Conservation Commission said the Ewen Farm has been on the priority list for purchase since 1967. Tucker believes the property is valuable in preserving.

"The proposal at this point preserves the rural views from both Lambert and Tyler City roads. It is important certainly to the open feel driving around Orange. It is unfortunate it doesn't include the center portion. People simply have to look at it and ask themselves if it is important to them," Tucker said.

The buildable acreage for sale already has seven lots that have been approved and Phase 2 will include five or six more homes with a total of 13 lots to be built there according to the applications presented to the Inland Wetlands and Planning and Zoning Commissions.

Board of Finance Chairman Kevin McNabola weighed in on the issue.

"The Ewen property is a key parcel in the Conservation Plan for the Town of Orange. Purchasing this property would not only preserve the Town character but would be a wise investment for many reasons but namely protecting the watershed of Indian River and the ecology which will have a lasting impact for our children and future generations," McNabola said.

When Davis was asked if the legislative process could be speeded up he said there was a chance.

"That is a possibility but most likely the town will have to front the money and if approved the state will reimburse the town," Davis said.

The property is home to a wide-range of wildlife and plant species. It is not unusual to see white tail deer, red-shouldered hawks, red and gray deer, ruffled grouse, pheasant, turkeys, various songbirds, woodcock, eastern cottontail or coyotes on the property. Just last week a pleated woodpecker was seen. This rare species needs wetland forest nearby for successful breeding.

Plants include white, red, black, scarlet, chestnut oaks, red and sugar maples, American ash, American chestnut, black, river and gray birch, ironwood, American beech, sycamores eastern white pine, eastern red cedar, American holly, American hemlock, larch, Douglas fir, hackberry and shagbark and pignut hickory. Rare plants on the property include jack-in-the-pulpit, princess pine and creeping pine.

Residents can cast their ballot 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at High Plains Community Center.

Brian McCready contributed to this article.