Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Maromas: Land of Opportunities, Part IV

This is the final installment of a 4-part series on city and state actions which have the potential to affect undeveloped land in Maromas owned by the Connecticut Valley Hospital (CVH) and by the city. Part I covered the Mayor's action to stop the Department of Environmental Protection from owning conservation easements on the land which protects the CVH water supply. Part II covered a proposal by the city to supply water to CVH. Part III covered the Governor's directive to CVH (and all other state agencies) to identify properties which could be sold to generate revenue. Part IV will cover the city-owned open space land stretching from the shore of the Connecticut River to the other side of watershed land (Thanks to Barrie Robbins-Pianka for two of the photographs).

The state transferred five parcels of land from CVH to the City on June 21, 2005, with the restriction that it would remain open space or revert back to State ownership. This land conveyance has been portrayed by elected city and state officials as a "compensation" for the imposition of the Connecticut Juvenile Training School on other CVH land. The City is currently considering how to use this land, and has released a "Request for Proposals" (RFP) to develop it. The RFP suggested a variety of possible uses for the land, but emphasized "active recreation" possibilities.

The Land
All 5 parcels of land abut state-owned land that is either used for state facilities or for watershed protection. Parcels 1 and 2 wrap around Riverview Hospital, the State's only mental health facility for children and adolescents. Parcels 3, 4 and 5 abut the state land around 4 reservoirs which supply drinking water to CVH and Riverview.
  • Parcel 1, between River Road and the Connecticut River, contains a mixed Larch and Pine forest, and includes a rail line which runs from Middletown to Pratt and Whitney (and further) along the river. There is a long-abandoned mine which provided lead for cannonballs early in the Revolutionary War (helping to defeat British Gen. John Burgoyne), and silver in the mid-1800s. Passing by the mine is a picturesque small stream which empties into a small sand delta in the Connecticut.
  • Parcel 2, wrapping from River Road all the way to Bow Lane, contains open fields and a swath of secondary tree growth. Duck Hill (elevation 221ft) is in the center of this parcel, and contains Native American Holly and Black Cherry trees. Millane's nurseries leases part of this land to grow trees and bushes.
  • Parcel 3 goes from Bow Lane to the top of Indian Hill (elevation 335ft), at Reservoir Road. There is an extensive stand of 20-50 year old cedars with moss and fern glades, and high bush blueberries in the understory.
  • Parcel 4 is the smallest of the parcels, and is composed primarily of fields along Reservoir Road and Cedar Lane.
  • Parcel 5 has a remarkable mature forest of Tulip Trees, Big-Toothed Aspens, and Chestnut Oaks, with an understory of Mountain Laurel, Ironwood, and Striped Maple Trees. Along the eastern border of the property is a breathtakingly beautiful stream which in places flows through a deeply cut ravine. Just before the stream approaches Brooks Road, the stream flows for about a hundred yards in a man-made channel made of cut stone, flowing in places as waterfalls over steps of hand-cut granite. This masonry may have been the handiwork of patients committed to CVH. In addition to the mature forest, there are two large hay-fields in parcel 5.
The Legislation and the Deed restriction
Residents in and around Maromas have long sought to reduce the number of state instututions in the area, or at least to prevent the imposition of new ones. There have been various attempts to wrest control of the CVH land from the State, including a 1995 bill (HB6537) to transfer over 800 acres from CVH to Middletown, which was introduced by Reps. Joe Serra and Susan Bysiewicz, and Sens. Tom Gaffey and Billy Ciotto (their bill did not make it out of committee).

In the late 1990s, activist groups such as Residents Against Institutional Dumping (RAID) unsuccessfully tried to stop the relocation of the Juvenile prison from Long Lane to CVH land. One of the outcomes of the decision to site the CT Juvenile School on CVH land was apparently a commitment by the state to compensate Middletown for the prison by giving the City other parcels of CVH land.

In the 2005 session, the legislature finally approved the transfer of CVH land to Middletown, in bill HB6909 (AN ACT CONCERNING THE CONVEYANCE OF CERTAIN PARCELS OF STATE LAND). Representative Serra, who played a critical role in this, told me that his goal was to remove as much land as possible out of state control, "The more you take out of state hands, the better the city is."

When the State gives land to a municipality, there are usually restrictions on the use of that land (for example some parcels might be required to be used for a municipal building). In this case, HB6909 stated that the land was to be used for "agriculture, parks, natural areas, forests, camping, fishing, wetlands preservation, wildlife habitat, swimming, hiking, other active recreational, educational, and other purposes that further state and municipal policies."

Serra is proud that his efforts went further than just securing the land for the City. He said that when the legislation was being written, he made sure that "Active Recreation" was one of the allowed uses for the land: "I always thought a golf course would be great [on the former CVH land]."

Buzzy Levin and his Dream of Middletown Golf
Efforts to build a municipal golf course in the city go back many years, probably to at least 1940, when the Highland Country Club on Atkins Street closed. The 1965 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) said, "One city-wide facility which is now lacking in Middletown is a golf course." The 2000 POCD agreed, "The city also needs ... a golf course to bring its recreational facilities up to SCORP [Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan] standards."

One of the most ardent proponents of a municipal golf course in the 1960s and 1970s was Jerome "Buzzy" Levin, owner of Malloves Jewelers on Main Street. Levin was a member of the Common Council from 1963 to 1971, and worked tirelessly first to get authorization and then funding for a course on Newfield Street, and later to get authorization for a course on what was then state-owned land in Maromas. In an article about the Maromas golf course proposal, The Hartford Courant described Levin as "the moving force behind the plans for a golf course."

Levin spoke with me at length about his time on the Common Council and as chair of the Park Board, and his efforts on behalf of a golf course. He reminisced fondly of his early days on the Council, when many of the meetings to discuss city business would take place at the kitchen table in his house, before the enforcement of the right-to-know laws made that impossible, "The first 5 years on Common Council were the most enjoyable." He also said that during this time there was virtually no partisanship, and he worked closely with both Democrats and Republicans.

In the 1967 session of the State Legislature, Levin and Mayor Kenneth Dooley lobbied state officials for the city to be allowed to build a golf course on the CVH land. The Hartford Courant of April 22, 1967, reported:
The Committee on Humane and Welfare Institutions hears the local bill Tuesday morning in Hartford. It will have strong support from city officials and golfing enthusiasts. The proposed golf course would cost an estimated $300,000 if the land were secured.
Levin brought a petition with 1200 signers supporting the golf course, and endorsements from the town committees of both parties, labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and a variety of civic groups. The State Board of Mental Health was initially opposed to a proposal for Middletown to purchase the land from CVH, but did not directly oppose an agreement to lease the land. The efforts of Levin and Dooley were successful, and HB 4720 (Authorizing Middletown to enter into lease agreement with trustees of Connecticut Valley Hospital for use of state land for municipal golf course) was passed on May 16, 1967. The total land under consideration was 175 acres.

Levin told me that he was working with the same team that built the Tunxis Plantation golf courses in Farmington, the Tomasso Companies. He lauded their work, saying they were wonderful partners to work with. For the state land in Maromas, the noted local golf course architect Albert Zikorus laid out a 6607 yard, par 72 course (the accompanying photo is Zikorus' plan). The Courant reported that the city would probably apply for Federal open space funds to pay for the construction of the course.

In July of 1967, Levin told the Courant that a target date for opening of the course would be July 4th, 1969. However, Levin's dream of a course on CVH land did not survive another summer. The Board of Mental Health decided in April of 1968 to reject the city's proposal for a golf course, according to The Courant, they "favored the saving of hospital land for future hospital or related mental health needs rather than for golf course use." CVH had also been authorized to give some of its land to the new Middlesex Community College for a campus, when CVH did so, it removed a key piece of land from Levin's proposed golf course.

[Levin told me in great detail, and with pride and regret about the other golf course project that he pushed, in Newfield Meadows. He said that he arranged for the city to purchase 278 acres for $250,000 in about 1963, using Federal and State open space funds. The land was mostly wetlands, but Levin told me a golf course is a permitted use, "When you build a golf course, you increase the beauty of the streams." Some of the city land was used to build Woodrow Wilson Middle School in the 1960s (and Middletown High School this decade). The golf course bond referendum narrowly lost in 1964, "37 votes! That's all we lost by."]

Levin now lives most of the year in Florida, returning to work at Malloves only in the summer and the holiday season, and he said he has no involvement at all in city politics, "The only time I've been to City Hall recently is to pay my taxes." However, he has not lost his passion for the cause he championed for so long, "It's a shame that the City of Middletown doesn't have a golf course."

A Golf Course in 2009?
The pace of golf course construction nationwide has slowed considerably since the 1960s and 1970s. Most of this cannot be attributed to the economic difficulties of the past couple of years--the number of rounds of golf played in the U.S. has consistently fallen since 2000. Joe Perillo, of the Connecticut State Golf Association, told The Eye, "Building a golf course is not a profitable thing right now." Mike Colandro, a PGA tour professional who lives in Cromwell, said that to make it feasible, it needed to be a year-round facility, with indoor practice facilities, "That could be beautiful if done right... It's definitely something that should happen."

Mike Milano, who owns Quarry Ridge Golf Course in Portland, said it would be extremely difficult for anybody to build a new golf course. He had heard that "city hall and the state rep were interested in building a golf course up there," and that there had been a proposal a few years ago. However, Milano said that golf courses are overbuilt right now, and the ownership of the land by the city would be problematic for any developer. He also told me that the Chamber of Commerce is dead set against any municipal golf course because it would be at a competitive advantage over private courses, since it would not pay property tax, "The Chamber and all the other golf courses would fight this to the tooth." Larry McHugh, president of the Chamber of Commerce, did not return my phone calls about the city-owned land.

A Request for Proposals
The RFP issued last month suggests many possible uses which would be appropriate for the city-owned land, including baseball and soccer fields, dog parks, golf courses, playgrounds, and boat ramps. Any proposals are to include extensive financial information, including a business plan and a demonstration of financial capacity. The RFP "is designed for income generating uses which can develop the land," according to City Planner Bill Warner, although he said that other proposals would also be considered.

Warner told me that the RFP was not targeted towards a specific proposed use such as a golf course, but rather, "I thought this was an opportune time to see what interest there is." Deputy Director of Planning Michiel Wackers said the RFP was advertised in the New England Real Estate Journal, the Hartford Courant, and a CT Park & Recreation listserv. Wackers told the Hartford Courant (July 22) that proposed ideas include the creation of a playground, a golf course, agricultural use and continued use by a local airplane club. The agricultural use is likely to be a proposal from Millane Nurseries to continue their lease of land for growing trees.

When I spoke to Mayor Giuliano about the State-owned reservoir land, he mentioned only one of those possible uses, "We're looking at a golf course in that end of town." He confirmed that the city would be receiving a golf course proposal in response to the RFP. During my conversation with Rep. Serra about the conservation easement, he too brought up the RFP, referring to it as an "RFP for a nine-hole golf course." Serra pointed out that when a golf course is built, the value of neighboring properties rises. Neither man could tell me which company might be putting in a proposal, but Giuliano indicated it was not from a group known for building courses in the area.

Councilmen Gerry Daley and David Bauer both serve on the Economic Development Commission, which will be evaluating the proposals. About a golf course, Daley said to me, "Personally I think it would be a challenge to build a course up there... [but] I'm not opposed to a golf course if it's done in an environmentally responsible way." However, both Daley and Bauer said they did not have any preconceptions about what should be done with the land, and both spoke of not only the financial value of using the land, but also the non-financial values.

Bauer was cautious about developing the land, saying that the benchmark for any development should be quite high. He noted, "This is some of the best farmland around." He said he would put a very high value on doing nothing, because "when we do nothing, the potential is for the future." Daley on the other hand, was a proponent of developing the land, "I don't think the best use is to leave it totally undeveloped. You need to find ways to get people to use the land."

Decisions made and decisions to come
Middletown and the State together own an enormous, uninterrupted tract of land that stretches from the banks of the Connecticut River for over two miles. The land abuts Middlesex Community College, CVH, and large tracts of land owned by Connecticut Light and Power; it is in close proximity to lots owned by the Kleen Energy Power Plant and by Pratt and Whitney. This land is valuable by almost any measure: it is a very short distance from downtown, is easily accessible from Route 9, it contains what the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers to be "Prime Farmland", and it has spectacular old forests, ravines with waterfalls, pristine watershed and reservoirs, and beautiful vistas.

The last two fiscal years have been challenging for both Middletown and the State. In Middletown, the Common Council has used sales of city assets to balance the budget each of those years (Remington Rand last year, and Cucia Park this year). It would not surprise me if the Council evaluated proposals for use of the city land primarily on the basis of their ability to maximize city revenue. In Hartford, the state's budget woes are even worse than Middletown's, and both political parties support the sale of state assets to balance the budget. With these pressures, it would not surprise me to see a proposal that the state offer to sell some of its Middletown land holdings.

I have been struck by the way that apparently small decisions by elected officials can have dramatic effects on the value of these city and state lands. These decisions, even when they relate to public legislation, are not always obvious at the time. For example, Rep. Joe Serra's 2005 insertion of the phrase "Active Recreation" into the deed restriction for the city land vastly increased the possible uses to which the land could be put, and led directly to the form which the RFP has taken. As another example, a few interested residents worked with Rep. Gail Hamm to generate conservation protection on the state lands, but even the elected officials of the City were not kept fully informed.

Other important decisions are made administratively, usually with the consultation of elected officials, but also not necessarily noticed by the public. An example of this would be the proposal by the Director of Water and Sewer to sell city water to CVH, so that the State would no longer need to manage its own water supply. Another example, possibly forthcoming, will be the decision by the senior management of CVH about what assets CVH might consider selling. Finally, city administrators can influence decisions by the manner in which they solicit proposals and the manner by which they present them to elected officials.

The other thing that has struck me as odd is the way that some ideas seem to persist for decades, even if virtually everybody first involved in them has moved on. 40 years after Buzzy Levin gave up on a Maromas golf course, the opening of the CJTS gave Middletown the possibility of finally acquiring most of the land that he wanted for it. When the City got the land, the Planning Department's RFP was for developing the land in any sort of manner consistent with the deed. But somehow, despite all the intervening decades, the thoughts of two of the most important elected officials (Serra and Giuliano) turn to an idea that was championed by Buzzy Levin, who last held public office over 30 years ago.

The next decisions on the city lands will be at the August meeting of the Economic Development Committee, when it evaluates the proposals which the Planning Department receives.

The state land is subject to largely administrative decisions, at least in the short term. The first one will be whether any CVH land is listed as a "salable asset."


Anonymous said...

What an amazing series. You've given us a lot to think about. I hope all the decision makers in town read it too.

Barrie said...

These articles deserve a wide readership. History, potential and perspective, all gathered in one handy series in The Eye!

As for the future of these lands,I agree with Eric Severeid, news journalist, who said, "Progress has to be defined to mean preserving and cherishing as well as changing and improving."

Judy said...

I hope they leave the wooded land alone. It's perfect as it is - you can't improve on natural beauty.

jerryg said...

I agree, what a great series. As a kid, we used to wander that whole area, the streams, the woods, all over. It would be great to rediscover it all!

Anonymous said...

As someone who has been active in the city conservation movement for over 25 years, I found this carefully researched article enlightening. I view this land as entrusted to us, the citizens of Middletown, for the future citizens to cherish. I totally endorse the wise remarks of Councilman Bauer. The best "use" of this land is to not diminish it by burdening it with a hort term "use" for short term financial gain!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon and David's sentiment that the best use is preserving it for the longer term future. Thanks alot Serra! Wonder if one of those proposals submitted in response to the RFP was his buddy's.