Protection of the 50 acre Merriam tree farm is a two-part deal. Last week the Middletown Common Council voted to allocate a maximum of $250,000 to buy the development rights for the approximately 25 acres of land on Middlefield Street in Middletown. Last night Middlefield’s equivalent body, the representative town meeting, voted 49-2 in favor of protecting their 25 acres.
In homey contrast to Middletown’s formal dais, microphones, and televised proceedings, the Middlefield meeting took place in the community center’s auditorium. Residents sat in folding chairs with the First Selectman (Jon Brayshaw), and a few others, at a table in front of the stage. As we said the pledge of allegiance the women around me remarked about needing a new flag, or at least dusting off its base. Marianne Coronas was asked to give an overview of the proposal, and Sheila Stoane, the Chair of Middletown’s Conservation Commission read the resolution unanimously passed by the Middletown Common Council. Then began a lively discussion.
Selectman Brayshaw held up a trim copy of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (which in Middletown would take at least two hands unless the revision process is changed) and explained that the goals they had laid out together in their plan – which included maintaining rural character - would be met by protecting the Merriam property. “What we did in 2002 is we adopted a way of life in Middlefield.” He went on to tell them that if passed, the cost would be about $15-20 per household per year – well worth it.
In the background – literally stage right – a DVD with soft jazz and continuous photos played on a laptop. The wildlife pictures were shot by some hunter friends of Bob Merriam, some gorgeous, some surprising. A tiny fawn with mother in a lime green wetland. Antlers and a black nose peaking out behind a tree. A tawny long-legged coyote. A male turkey on his way to full display.
A representative from the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission reported that at their last meeting they had unanimously approved the purchase – “there wasn’t a word against it”. The first selectman said that they were not buying just 25 acres, but the connection of hundreds of acres, given the boundaries with other protected open space, such as Wadsworth Falls State Park, land trust land and City of Middletown property.
Jerry (if I was a real reporter I would have gotten his last name but I’m not, so I didn’t) said that he had moved back to Middlefield because of the rural nature of the area. He thought purchasing the development rights was a good idea.
Melissa Greenbacker , from Greenbacker Farm in Durham told them that they farmed there because the land was protected with an easement, and that protecting the property now is protecting their future. A woman behind me piped up “the last crop you’ll ever plant will be a house”.
But $250,000 is still a lot of money, and Middlefield has its shares of financial worries. One woman who asked about the property taxes the town would collect should the land be developed elicited respectful contradictions – the $5,000-$6,000 in taxes, for example, wouldn’t begin to cover the annual education of even one child (estimated at $10,000); economic analyses by the UConn extension service indicate that open space brings more savings to a community than housing ; and that protecting this land from development was not exclusionary, as one woman complained, but balanced.
Seb remarked that he had benefited by being educated in Middletown many years ago, and that he understood that the City saw this as a partnership. “That’s important…” he said; “this can help us grow our relationship with Middletown.”
The meeting reached a point where everyone seemed to have said their piece, and was satisfied they had been heard and their point understood. A moderator was elected, the motion brought and seconded, and instead of the “all in favor…” I was expecting, a secret paper vote would be cast. Hubbub ensued as a line formed from the stage, with much chatter and socializing. The result – 49 in favor, 2 against. And that was it! A town meeting which started at 7pm ended at about 8:20. As great as it was to see the Merriam property come one step closer to a being a protected chunk along the Coginchaug river, it was also pleasant, and oddly exciting, to see rural democracy in action.