Saturday, July 18, 2009

Maromas: Land of Opportunities. Part I

The water for CVH originates from reservoirs east of Training Hill and Reservoir Roads, in the Maromas section of Middletown. The watershed area which protects these reservoirs includes land owned by the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS), Middlesex Community College, private landowners, and the City. The watershed land totals over 500 acres, and is a region of largely unspoiled forests, streams, and rocky outcroppings overlooking beautiful reservoirs.

This is the first installment of a 4-part series on recent city and state actions which have the potential to impact the use of land in Maromas. Parts 1, 2, and 3 are about land owned mostly by Connecticut Valley Hospital, and part 4 is about city-owned land adjacent to CVH.

Protecting Maromas and Middletown
Towards the end of the 1990s, concerned residents as well as city officials began to focus on ways to protect land in Middletown from being developed by the State or by private developers. One of the events which motivated them was the unilateral decision by the State to build a $53M Juvenile Detention Facility on state-owned land in Maromas, overlooking the Connecticut River. Despite enormous pressure from residents, neither the mayor (Domenique Thornton), nor the state delegation (led by Joe Serra) stopped this project.

Concerned residents, led by Katchen Coley, Linda Bowers, and Ellen Lukens, formed a group called the Advocates for a Maromas Plan (AMP). This group was especially concerned about the re-zoning of portions of Maromas to industrial and they resisted efforts, backed by Joe Serra in the legislature, to extend sewer service into Maromas. In recent years, one of AMP's major efforts has been to add legal environmental protection to the land owned by the State.

The City Planning Department also wanted to make it more difficult for the State to again dump another facility in Middletown. The Planning Department felt that if the State land were under a conservation easement owned by the Department of Environmental Protection, far more transparency would be required at the State level before a new facility could be imposed on Middletown. Such an easement would minimally require extensive hearings and assessments to determine the environmental impact of a new facility, or it would require an act of the Legislature to give the easements to the agency wishing to build a new facility.

State representative Gail Hamm, who represents most of the Maromas section of Middletown (as well as Haddam), took up the effort on behalf of the city and its residents. In 2009 she wrote language for a bill which would have resulted in the transfer of conservation easements from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Department of Children and Families, the City, and Middlesex Community College to the Department of Environmental Protection.

However, the bill ran into an unexpected roadblock when it reached the Mayor's office this past May. Just a week before the Legislature was to vote, Mayor Sebastian Giuliano blocked the bill by telling Representative Hamm that the city was adamantly opposed to the transfer of conservation easements.

Background to House Bill 6695
Any easement conveyance is a complicated affair, but especially when it involves multiple different State agencies. During the 2007 Legislative session, preliminary discussions among interested parties took place, but there was
insufficient time in that session to bring forward any bills. However, Representative Hamm did arrange for the DEP to fund a survey of the watershed property boundaries (see map image, which comes from the Middletown Planning Department).

At the beginning of the 2009 Legislative session, the effort to introduce a conveyance bill intensified. The efforts led to a meeting to discuss the conveyance, on March 24th, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. This meeting included representatives from all of the involved parties, including the City's Planning Department, Representative Hamm, Senator Doyle, and representatives of the DEP, DMHAS, DCF, and Middlesex Community College. According to three people present at that meeting, both the City Planning office and the DMHAS supported the conveyance of the conservation easements around the reservoirs. Middlesex Community College and the DCF were also in favor.

With the support of Middletown Planning Department and the various state agencies, Representative Hamm arranged for the following language to be inserted into Bill 6695 ("AN ACT CONCERNING THE CONVEYANCE OF CERTAIN PARCELS OF STATE LAND"):
Notwithstanding any provision of the general statutes, the Departments of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Children and Families and the city of Middletown and Middlesex Community College shall each grant to the Department of Environmental Protection conservation easements over certain parcels of land that are the subject of the "Land Title Report, Southerly Watershed Properties, Connecticut Valley Hospital 1866-2007", as prepared by Attorney John E. Hudson. Such easements shall be granted for the purpose of preserving the reservoirs, watershed, aquifers and other water supply lands, located on or abutting the grounds and buildings comprising the Connecticut Valley Hospital in the city of Middletown.
The Bill was approved by the Government Administrations and Elections Committee on March 30th, and scheduled for a vote in the full House and Senate. [The CVH easement conveyance was only one of many unrelated conveyances in the bill. For example, two small houses on Wadsworth Street, formerly owned by DCF as part of the Long Lane Correctional Facility, were also to be conveyed to the city in the same bill (many properties in other towns were also in the bill).]

Mayor kills bill
However, the CVH watershed conservation easement conveyance went no further. As is customary, prior to voting on a bill which would impact land in the City, Representative Hamm faxed a copy of its language to Mayor Giuliano, sending it to his office on the Friday before Memorial Day. Mayor Giuliano's response was swift and certain -- on Tuesday he phoned Hamm's office and according to the intern who fielded his call, said, "The city administration and me absolutely oppose this bill."

In an interview with The Eye, Mayor Giuliano said that he supported the preservation of land in Maromas, but that there was not enough time for him to analyze the effects of this particular bill. He said the bill came to his attention, "at the 59th minute of the 11th hour." Giuliano said he consulted with Representative Joe Serra, with Ralph Wilson, an attorney who lives in Maromas, and with Larry McHugh, president of the Chamber of Commerce. He did not apparently consult with Representative Hamm or with AMP.

After these consultations, Giuliano said he was simply unsure of the effects that HB6695 would have on the interests of the City. He said he needed more time to analyze the bill than he was provided, "It may be the greatest deal in the world, but I had no way of knowing that at the time."

With very clear instructions from the Mayor to block the bill, Hamm had no choice but to oppose the language regarding the Middletown land conveyance. When Bill 6695 was raised on the floor of the House June 3rd, an amendment which stripped the relevant paragraph was introduced and passed. With that language removed, the Bill was passed by the House, and then the Senate.

Speculations about the failure of this bill
In speaking with city workers, citizen activists in AMP, Rep. Hamm's office, and others about this story, one of the persistent questions that came up was, "Why did the Mayor kill this bill?" To me it seems that there are two broad categories of explanations for his action.

The first possible reason for the Mayor's "veto" is that it resulted from a series of failures by elected and unelected government officials. Communication between the Department of Planning and the Mayor's office was incomplete, and the communication between Rep. Hamm and Rep. Serra may also have been less than it should have been for a topic of such importance to the city they both represent. In addition, it seems clear that Rep. Hamm did not notify Mayor Giuliano until the very last possible moment, after a time when it would have been possible to arrange a meeting. The language of the bill was filed on April 16th, and yet Hamm did not share it with the Mayor until May 22nd. In addition, the conveyance is without question complicated, some of the meetings involved 30 different people, with each agency bringing their director, a finance person, and other staff. This legislation may have moved forward if there had simply been better communication and better coordination between agencies, the city, and the politicians. If this explanation is correct, a renewed effort in the next legislative session may yield a different result.

Alternatively, it may be that any conveyance of a conservation easement on any land in Middletown to the DEP is doomed to fail, no matter how much communication there is. It may be that some elected officials, or the people that they consult with on important issues, would block any attempt to restrict the use of land in Middletown, no matter how it was handled. This may reflect a belief that the City government is the best entity for determining the use and preservation of land in Middletown.

I repeatedly contacted Rep. Hamm, to get her insights into these possibilities. However, her legislative assistant, Rosemarie Hice, told me that Hamm would not be available to answer any of my questions about HB6695.

Epilogue to HB6695: In July, Governor Rell vetoed the bill, so even if Mayor Giuliano had not blocked the Maromas passage, its future would have been uncertain. I will discuss this and more in Part III of this series. Part II will cover a proposed change in the CVH water supply.


Anonymous said...

Although I agree to some extent to the preservation of land within the Maromas Area better know as the South District of the City of Middletown, I feel that we need to look into the prudent and much needed development of this District.
The riverfront is way overdue to be developed, the monies that could be brought into the City from this alone would be a great start to tax relief.
The smart development of the City would benefit the taxpayers by means of tax relief through commercial properties, we need to reaccess how we conduct business in this City and look out for the best interest of the residents.

Jane Harris said...

This is an excellent overview, and I'm so glad there's an "Eye" to cover issues such as this one. Without actually being an insider, it's impossible to tell how evenhanded this report is, but it certainly seems so. I look forward to Parts II and III. Thanks to all of you who made this possible!

argos said...

To equate the best interests of the residents of the city with the development of Maromas in the hope that taxes would be lower is at best a simplification. At worst it would be the beginning of the destruction of the open land remaining in Middletown. Who is going to see to it that the area doesn't go the way of the Silas Deane Highway? Not the people hoping to make a buck--and, from your article, not our mayor.

Anonymous said...

There is no benefit to any development except to the parties that profit from development. The citizens of Middletown will never benefit. If development means more tax dollars, that is just an endless chase. One day there will be nothing to develop for tax revenue. Better to face that today, limit development now and leave areas undeveloped for the future centuries.

Anonymous said...

In order to support a community we must build the community, acting upon this responsibly. To close your eyes to this reality or turn your back to it and think that it will just go away is no more than a fantasy.
If you choose to live in seclusion then one only need to head north to the Yukon Territory and not worry about taxes and also not enjoy the pleasures and benefits of living within a civilized community.
As far as saving the land for future centuries, in 1980 the State of CT was 80% woodland and open space and as I write this response the State still holds this status, so please share with me the benefit of not growing.
The population will continue and the people who reside within it must act to assure the quality of life we all deserve, by planning and building responsibly those who benefit from development are beyond those who own the business.
I have lived in the South Farms my entire life as has my family dating back to the early 1900's, I can say with honesty that I am not pleased with all the development that has occurred, but that most of it has been done with tact and we can and should continue to improve upon how we move forth into the future. Turning a blind eye is not the answer.

Anonymous said...

Attenti al Cane

The Mayor’s facile shrugging off of this decision is totally inadequate to explain his “veto” action. “Consultations” may not fully describe the activities of the assembled group of these distinguished gentlemen. Chief among speculations that spring to my inquiring mind is that the Mayor, like Pinocchio before him, is not telling the truth!

There had been years of planning, more than $40,000 spent on title searches and several recent meetings concerning the transfer. The Planning Department was actively involved. Why should Rep. Hamm have believed that the Mayor was unaware of all the efforts of the local and state agencies involved? Where has the Mayor been? Under Mr. Mc Hugh’s thumb? Perhaps he was “consulting” with Mr. Wilson about which tie he should wear that evening, which spoon to use or whether the trough was full enough for their dining pleasure. How very polite to invite Mr. Serra to join in the fun! And exceptionally rude not to include Rep. Hamm…

Who is running this puppet show, that is, our City, descendants of Pinocchio or the people they consult with on important issues? Thank you, Jiminy Cricket, for conscientiously chirping about these sad and disturbing facts.

Jasper Cane

argos said...

I wonder if Jasper Cane would consider running for mayor. He certainly has the intellectual pedigree.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cane one only need to look in the very heart of the City and know that this town is being run by Weslyan University and its close followers.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Eye Spy,

Oh, that this town were to be run by the Wesleyan crowd. They have some influence, no doubt, but that is not who is calling the shots!