By Michael G. Harris, President, Earth Charter Community of the Lower Valley, Inc. (ECCoLoV)
It is hard to overstate the cavalier nature of the legislative act that swapped protected, public, conservation land in Haddam, Connecticut for another parcel in town owned by Haddam’s Riverhouse (RH) banquet facility, a private entity.
Though tried in previous years and deemed unacceptable by Connecticut leaders, the swap was forced through the state legislature through the exertions of Senator Eileen Daily, who it turns out was involved in the swap since at least 2005.
This is not yet a done deal. People still have a chance to voice their opposition to what amounts to a land grab right in the middle of what is consistently acknowledged as a very special place. The lower Connecticut River Valley is recognized everywhere as one of the “last great places” as yet unburdened by excessive development.
Analysis versus Emotions
As a person involved with the swap since I provided folk music at the riverfront rally sponsored by the state’s most vocal opponent of the swap, Citizens for the Protection of Public Lands (CPPL), I had to step back to reconcile strong feelings about the wrongness of the swap, and the facts as I could best understand them. As the President of the Earth Charter Community of the Lower Valley, Inc., I had the opportunity to evaluate the swap through the lens of the Earth Charter—a set of sustainability principles developed through a worldwide effort.
Evaluating the swap against the ideals of environmental integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, peace and non-violence, helped me reconcile my heart-felt revulsion with a more pragmatic analysis.
The effort to accomplish the swap involved a dismaying display of inaccuracies offered by lobbyists and proponents to sway the opinion of our part-time legislators. The mischaracterizations about both the property itself and the purported benefits of the swap were only exceeded by the political wrangling and backroom dealings used to force the issue. The commissioner of the newly created Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), Dan Esty, remained silent, though leaked emails indicated he felt “he wouldn’t be able to duck this swap much longer.”
An avalanche of negative public comments had little effect. Though it was claimed the swap was deemed acceptable based on a “public hearing”, none ever took place. Governor Malloy signed the bill over the objections of leading environmental groups in the state. The Connecticut Law Tribune issued a scathing editorial on the poor process and dire implications on future land conservation should the swap happen.
The shenanigans continue as the truth of the value disparity between the properties is revealed in professional appraisals. This disparity is being kept hidden from public view. Moreover, it was recently revealed that the property being swapped for the public land has been encumbered by a loan of $2.4 million—several times the value of the land.
Here is a summary of swap-related events:
Riverhouse LLC (RH) purchased an 87.7-acre, failed subdivision in the Higganum section of Haddam for $428K in 2009. The town set its appraised value set at $466K that same year. The 17.4 acres, known as Clark Creek Wildlife Management Area (CCWMA), were purchased for $1.35 million in 2003 with public money. The Town of Haddam set its appraised value at $1.55 million in 2009. Incredibly, a reevaluation by the Town in 2010 dropped the value of this public conserved open space by a whopping 71%— down to $429K, while the land to be swapped dropped in value by 31% to $324K. The result of these disparate reductions vastly reduced the perceived inequity of the property values.
Daily officially tried to get the swap approved in 2009 using closed door action on the last day of the legislative session, adding the swap at the last minute to the annual conveyance bill. It passed, but then-Governor Jodi Rell vetoed it. She stated in a Hartford Courant article in 2009 that she didn’t like it: “Had I not vetoed this bill, the public would have been shut out of the process and would have been denied any input on the project.” Importantly, a conveyance bill is used by the state to divest itself of surplus odd pieces of land, not a 17.4-acre piece of riverview land overlooking the Connecticut River, deeded as open space and comprising disappearing, rare habitat.
Daily again tried in 2010 but the GAE (Government Administrations and Elections Committee) never let it get out of committee; too many people were against it. Trying again in 2011, there were different legislators chairing the GAE committee and it passed without discussion. Once the bill hit the floor of the House, Senator Daily changed the language of it, stating that all conservation language in the deed to the CCWMA would be null and void.
Two independent, Yellow Book appraisals, usually used for Federal Land acquisition with very strict rules, were legislatively mandated to make sure the state gets fair value. Indications are that there is at least a $1 million disparity between the two properties. However, DEEP is not releasing the appraisals, stating their policy is to not release appraisals because of the sensitive nature of the negotiating process. Opponents claim is that there is no negotiating here because the process of the swap was legislatively mandated.
DEEP rebuffed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to release the appraisals. An appeal to the FOI commission will take months, by which time the deal may very well be consummated. Conflicting statements by DEEP regarding the “review” of appraisal assumptions and simultaneous “on-going negotiations” indicate an inherent conflict of interest in the secret process. The professional appraisers are reported to be angered over requests to massage baseline assumptions, perhaps because of the ethical implications.
DEEP, the holder and protector of state-owned lands, actually has a system in place, the Land Exchange Directive, specifically for evaluating such transactions. This was not implemented because Senator Daily bypassed DEEP and went directly to the legislature. DEEP Commissioner Esty never asked for the Directive to be followed, thus letting the land go without carefully considering what the citizens of Connecticut were getting in return for their publically-funded conservation land. Now it appears, without a timely, favorable ruling by the FOI commission, state taxpayers may never know the truth.
Prior to November 2011, RH had a $215K mortgage left on the 87 acres. But in mid-November 2011, RH consolidated debt and remortgaged the 87 acres for $2.4 million. The loans were granted by Liberty Bank and backed by the Small Business Administration (SBA). The Haddam Bulletin is currently requesting information from the SBA under FOI to see what appraisals and due diligence were used to substantiate the loan—given that the land had been valued at far less than the loan amount.
Wrapping Things Up
Despite the obviously nefarious characteristics of the swap, there is plenty of controversy, not the least of which is the argument for economic development. In an effort to consider the issue from a grounded perspective, the sustainability principles offered by the Earth Charter offer a valuable context.
With regard to social and economic justice, the swap fails as a result of its lack of transparent process and nebulous economic benefit to the town. Although claims are made as to the value of the development potential, a realistic view would acknowledge that only short-term construction jobs and longer-term, low wage services jobs will result. The majority of the benefit will accrue to the developer’s select group. The project will depend on taxpayer-funded infrastructure improvements including water, sewer, pollution remediation and roadway improvements. Conversely, the developer has a record of relying on tax abatements to enhance profitability. Meanwhile, SMART development goals addressing improvements to the quality of life for the town itself are ignored.
More importantly, the swap hijacks the express conservation funds of the Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program. Mismanaging the public funds of such a program earmarked for the clear mission of conserving important lands is unethical at best, and should be criminal.
From the perspective of environmental integrity, the swap sacrifices preserved land comprising a rare, disappearing estuarine habitat in the name of questionable economic development unabashedly characterized by both the state and the developers as a “tourist destination.” Justifying such an act in support of a tourist destination simply extends our commitment to fossil-fuel derived expansions of our economy, which represents little in the way of meeting tangible needs of the local residents. At a time of converging crises of energy and food security, this is irresponsible.
Even from the perspective of democracy, peace and non-violence, the swap scores poorly based on its heavy-handedness and undermining of the democratic process. The arbitrary horse-trading of political favors as a means of validating this destructive act has widespread implications for all of society. It has a deeply chilling effect on the confidence and ability of our state to securely preserve land against mounting calls for more economic expansion, which in turn supports destruction and human conflict around the world. The swap is clear evidence of the need for fundamental changes in our socio-economic-political worldview. In short, it is a travesty that should not happen.
The author is the President of the Earth Charter Community of the Lower Valley, Inc. (ECCoLoV), located in Deep River, Connecticut. Their website is www.earthcharterct.org.
For more information about the Haddam land swap, go to www.landswap.org.
To sign a petition against the swap, visit here. In addition to signing, please pass the link along to like-minded friends.
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