Newly elected state Rep. Phil Miller, D-Essex, is seeking to reassure constituents about his position on a controversial proposal to swap 17 acres of state land overlooking the Connecticut River for an 87-acre tract of forest in the town's Higganum section.
In a letter this week to the media, which was also sent to several Haddam residents, Miller, who represents the 36th District, says he now opposes the deal. "I am not in favor of the proposed land exchange idea in Haddam," Miller wrote. When asked last week by a reporter before a meeting of the Connecticut River Gateway Commission if he supported the swap in principal, Miller had answered "yes," provided that the deal was "properly vetted."
The deal would give owners of the Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station the 17-acre state tract, adjoining their banquet facility overlooking the river in the Tylerville section, in exchange for all or a portion of 87 acres that the Riverhouse developers own near Cockaponset State Forest. The Riverhouse partners — Steve Rocco, Jim Bucko, Mark Poole and Trevor Furrer — say they would like to build a small hotel or an inn on the property but have no firm plans.
The land swap was rejected by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2009 and the legislature in 2010, but Eileen Daily, co-chairwoman of the legislature's finance committee, is again including the Haddam swap in the annual land conveyance bill to release surplus state parcels such as old rights of way. A hearing on the transfer has not been scheduled, but Daily said it could take place later this month.
Proponents claim that developing the 17-acre state property — with its picturesque view of the metal "swing bridge" and the landmark Goodspeed Opera House — could create hundreds of jobs and bring in much-needed tax revenue.
Opponents, including former state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Amey Marella, argue that releasing public land for private development sets a dangerous precedent, putting at risk other donations of open space.
In Haddam, a number of residents are reacting angrily to the news that the land deal is back in play.
"I was shocked that this has come back," said Sharon Botelle, whose Bridge Street property abuts the 17-acre site. "[Former 36th District state Rep. Jamie Spallone] made a decision to take this land swap out of the conveyance bill last year and that should have been the end of it. I don't know why Daily keeps pushing this. Taking land out of conservation like this makes all state open space vulnerable."
Haddam resident Artie Abbott agreed. He said that the issue extends far beyond the borders of Haddam. "This is really a statewide issue because this property was purchased with all our tax dollars and all of us own it," he said.
Botelle and other opponents are asking Miller — whose district covers Haddam, Deep River, Chester and Essex — to take a stronger stance against the swap, noting what they say are the legislator's contradictory statements in his letter. Miller, after stating his initial opposition, goes on to say that the transfer could happen in a year if appraisals are done for both properties and new zoning regulations are in place for the Tylerville area.
"[The Gateway Commission] feels that if these conditions could be met, then by next year, there could be consideration. I agree with the Gateway Commission," Miller wrote.