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Westbrook, one of 24 Connecticut towns awarded a portion of $9.1 million in open space grants, will receive $315,000 in state funds. Westbrook’s funding is nearly half the $650,000 asking price of nearly 147 acres belonging to Toby Hill Associates and, if the sale goes through, will be the second town purchase from the developer.
The grants were made via the Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Program (OSWLA), which is administered by the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) and announced by Governor Ned Lamont on Jan. 8.
The parcel abuts the Essex Land Trust property known as Fern Ledge to the north and nearly 15 acres owned by the Westbrook Land Conservation Trust to the south. Purchasing the property will close a gap in the McVeagh Greenway, add to the regional trail system, and enlarge the “habitat corridor...of approximately 527.6 permanently protected mixed hardwood forest and red maple wetlands with significant ecological and outdoor recreation value,” according to the grant application.
“It’s an exquisite piece of property that connects so many puzzle pieces,” said Heidi Wallace, Westbrook’s inland wetland and conservation agent.
Wallace wrote the grant and oversaw the entire process, which included obtaining two appraisals as well as an ecological assessment of the parcel.
“It connects to existing open space in both Westbrook and Essex, creating a continuous tract of preserved property,” she said. “It is almost immediately upstream of the Holbrook Well, owned by the Connecticut Water Company. Development of these parcels will most certainly degrade the water quality” for Westbrook residents.
“The property is directly downstream from the headwaters of Trout Brook, and we found juvenile trout in the stream, which was very exciting,” she continued. “There are aquatic insects in the stream that are indicative of pristine water quality.
“It’s a beautiful property to hike and accessible right from Town-owned property,” she added.
Funding Was in Question
Wallace also sounded the alarm that state funding was in jeopardy.
In early December, 2019, the Connecticut Land Conservation Council sent out an action alert to its email list, asking recipients to contact the governor’s office and state legislators to urge the governor to authorize the State Bond Commission to release $5 million in funding to cover the 2019 grant round.
“This year, DEEP received the second highest number of grant applications in the program’s history,” the email read, “and, with the agency still recovering from annual cuts to the Community Investment Act (CIA), funding for the OSWA program is not adequate to fund current project proposals.”
“Heidi [Wallace] deserves full credit for writing the grant and it was through her vigilance that there was some concern that the money might be pulled from the grant,” said Westbrook First Selectman Noel Bishop.
Wallace sent an email to the governor, urging him to authorize funding for the grants. She explained that because of the importance of local open space to her, personally, and to the community, she continued work on the grant application while her father was dying.
“It was this [email] that I forwarded to the COG [Council of Governments], encouraging them to support leaving the funds for open space,” said Bishop.
In November, at a meeting of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG), members were asked to write letters to Lamont, urging him not to “close off this money,” said Bishop.
State Senator Norm Needleman (D-33) also spoke up on behalf of the grant program and, in particular, the applications by Westbrook and Clinton, which are both in his district.
“I’ve been trying to be very helpful to the governor and his team,” Needleman said. “I sit down with [them] and talk about priorities.
“I advocate for my towns all the time,” he said. “I’m always advocating and you never know which ones are going to” be successful.
“I’ve been a proponent of open space and preserving land,” he continued. “The towns do a great job—most of that money is raised privately.”
In mid-December, the state bond commission authorized the $5 million allocation for the OSWLA program.
“There does not yet appear to be a round of open space grants in 2020, and I don’t know when this type of opportunity will arise again,” Wallace said.
Indeed, the program’s web page states that it is not accepting grant applications at this time.
Finding Another $315,000
Now that state funding is in place, Wallace is reaching out to organizations for additional funds.
“I’m going to tap as many resources as possible before we turn to the town” for funding, she said. “I’m using this time right now to research what those resources are.”
Time is of the essence.
“The owners are looking to put this [parcel] back on the market,” Wallace said.
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