(Cross-posted from Pelto’s Point at the New Haven Advocate)
Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Esty faced opponents of the Haddam “land swap” deal yesterday in what the Hartford Courant described as a “sometimes heated question-and-answer session.”
Wait, What? Readers will remember that the Legislature passed and Governor Malloy signed a bill swapping 17 acres of state-owned land overlooking the Connecticut River for 87 acres of land adjacent to a state park. The developer will now use the 17 acres to build an upscale mall on the river view land.
Link to the previous Wait, What? post; http://jonpelto.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/dep-leader-calls-controversial-land-deal-%e2%80%9cnot-the-most-important-environmental-issue%e2%80%9d/
A similar bill was vetoed by Governor Rell last year pointing out that despite the legislative support the Department of Environmental Protection strongly opposed the transfer.
This year, Connecticut’s environmental groups once again geared up in opposition of the bill. However, thanks to the work of the bills primary sponsor, the Senate Chairwoman of the Finance Committee, both
Malloy and Esty chose not to make any statements during the legislative session and Governor Malloy quickly and quietly signed the bill into law soon after the legislative session ended.
Opponents claimed that since both the seller and the State agreed to purchase the land for open space, Connecticut state government was obligated to maintain the land and could not transfer it to a private developer.
At Thursday’s meeting Commissioner Esty said that the reports that there were restrictions on the Haddam land was “misinformation” and that “there was no promise to protect [the land] for the seller.”
The notion that the lack of a deed restriction made it “okay” to trade the land to a private developer is more than a bit disingenuous.
The 17 acres in question was purchased through the Connecticut Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust
The fund was a 1986 initiative of Governor William O’Neill (the last Democrat to have served in the Governor’s Office). At the time, the Governor and his Administration recognized the policy (and political
importance) of doing more to permanently protected open space and farmland.
I know, because I was there and deeply involved in using the 1986 legislative session to better position the
Governor’s fall re-election effort. In the small world department, another key player was none other than Tim Bannon, Malloy’s present chief of staff who, at the time served as O’Neill’s speech writer and part of the governor’s inner circle.
The 1986 legislation even included an introductory explanation that laid out the goals of the effort. It’s an explanation the remains in statute to this day.
The new fund was designed to “(1) Acquire land that represents the ecological diversity of Connecticut, including natural features such as riverine, montane, coastal and geologic systems or other natural areas, on behalf of the state, in order to ensure the preservation and conservation of such land for recreational,
scientific, educational, cultural and aesthetic purposes and (2) acquire land of unusual natural interest as additions to the system of parks, forests, wildlife and fishery management areas, natural areas and dedicated natural area preserves in the state for the beneficial use and enjoyment of the public.
In 1989, O’Neill was still Governor, another section was added reading that the goal was also to “(3) acquire land identified as essential habitat for endangered and threatened species.
And in 1998 a final criteria was added that said that the fund could be used to purchase land to (4) offset carbon dioxide produced through combustion of fossil fuels by preserving lands that naturally absorb it.
Now, twenty five years later, Connecticut‘s Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust program remains
the state’s primary mechanism for acquiring and preserving environmentally important open space.
As reported in today’s Hartford Courant, Rob Smith, an East Haddam resident and a former top administrator with the Department of Environmental Protection’s parks division spoke up at the meeting. Smith confronted Commissioner Esty’s claim that there was no restriction on the sale of the land saying “You can’t make statements like that if you want people to trust you.”
But Esty maintained that the land transfer was appropriate and even told the group that it was a good deal for the state.
How and why this bill made it through the General Assembly and was signed into law would make a great case study about how politics and power can be used to steamroll policy (and in this case historic intent).
Courant Story: http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-esty-visits-gillette-castle-0805-20110804,0,2570661.story