By ERIK HESSELBERG, Special To The Courant The Hartford Courant
4:45 p.m. EDT, April 29, 2011
A former senior administrator with the state Department of Environmental Protection told a crowd more than 100 Thursday that it is his understanding that the department strongly opposes a proposal to swap conservation land near the Connecticut River with a developer.
"There is no one in the DEP that is in favor of this," said Rob Smith, retired assistant director of state parks. "This is unprecedented — in my 30-plus years [with the DEP] I've never heard anything such as this."
Smith joined other residents from six river towns who voiced their opposition to the controversial deal now pending in the legislature.
The "Stop the Swap" forum, at the University of Connecticut Extension Center on Saybrook Road, was the first large public gathering to address the land swap, which would give the owners of the Riverhouse Banquet Center in the town's Tylerville section 17 acres in exchange for 87 wooded acres that the partners own in Higganum along Route 81.
The two-hour forum featured a panel discussion and addresses by Rep. Phil Miller, D-Essex, and former 36th House District Rep. Claire Sauer, both of whom opposed the swap and expressed "dismay" at their colleague, Sen. Eileen M. Daily, D-Westbrook, who has supported the proposal.
Sauer, of Old Lyme, said members of that town's Democratic town committee all oppose the swap. Also speaking in opposition was Todd Gelston, a former East Haddam representative of the Connecticut River Gateway Commission and a conservationist whose family once owned the landmark Gelston House in East Haddam.
The high point of the evening — judging by the reaction of the audience — was a 15-minute video on the land swap that disputed the claim by Riverhouse partners that the 17 acres are a "polluted former sand pit," that would be returned to productive use through development.
Instead, the video showed walking trails winding though leafy trees and fern glens and grassy meadows sprinkled with wildflowers. The video, created by Haddam resident Melissa Schlag, drew loud applause.
"The Connecticut River is one of the most important ecosystems in the world," said Deep River architect John Kennedy, one of the organizers of the event. "Whether this land is worth a million dollars or one dollar, what is the future of donated property if the state is allowed to trade away public property like this?"
The Riverhouse partners have proposed building a resort complex on the property with an inn and shops anchored by an "entertainment venue." They say the 87 acres to be exchanged would be a valued addition to Cockaponset State Forest, which it borders.
But Kennedy and others argue that the 17-acre site, with its sweeping view of the East Haddam swing bridge and Goodspeed Opera House, has far greater value than the 87-acre site, whose wetlands and steep, wooded terrain have made building problematic.
The 17-acre parcel was bought in 2005 by the state Department of Environmental Protection for $1.3 million, while the 87-acre site was purchased in 2009 for $425,000.
Kennedy concluded the meeting by asking if there was anyone in the room in favor of the swap. There was silence.