Easton may take South Park land by eminent domain: Fairfield (CT) Minuteman, 12/1/05

By Bill Bittar

The future holds several possibilities for the South Park Avenue property formerly known as DiNardo Farm. Age restricted condos may crop up, 74 affordable units could be installed on concrete slabs or the 29.6 acre parcel could become a public park with access to trout fishing in Mill River.

The property, at 18 and 22 South Park Ave., is owned by Running Brook Farm LLC, which is appealing a Planning & Zoning Commission decision to deny its plan to build 44 units of age-restricted housing last year. While the case makes its way through court, Running Brook has a new application for 74 units of affordable housing before the town's land use boards. Now, the Board of Selectmen is considering taking the parcel by eminent domain for open space, which would prevent any development on the property.

"We're looking at all the options the town has," First Selectman William Kupinse said Monday. "The Board of Selectmen has not decided absolutely on taking the property. If terms can be worked out, we would certainly consider buying the property. If terms cannot be worked out, we may decide to take the property."

"The town's going to pursue every option to protect the town's interests in terms of South Park Avenue," Selectman Robert Lessler said Monday.

The selectmen met with the finance board in executive session - which is closed to the public - about a month ago to discuss the town's options. And at its November meeting, the Board of Finance approved funds for an updated appraisal of the South Park property and for a design of a public park to be drawn up. The board also allowed the P&Z to hire an expert to study the proposed sewer system for the affordable housing plan and for attorney Ira Bloom to serve as legal counsel for the P&Z and the Conservation Commission in the matter.

"I wouldn't want to comment until I was contacted by the town," Matthew Ranelli, the attorney representing Running Brook Farm LLC and its developer, Philip DiGennaro, said Monday.

The P&Z hearing on the affordable housing application held in November was continued to Dec. 12 and the Conservation Commission will review the plan on Dec. 13.

Criticizing the plan
Both Lessler and Kupinse oppose Running Brook's affordable housing plan. Scott Centrella, who is the third selectman, was unavailable to comment by press time. Because 23 of the units would be sold below market value, the plan meets the state definition of affordable housing. As a result, the burden of justifying a denial would fall on the town.

Kupinse believes the state statute is meant to enable developers to build denser housing in towns, rather than to promote affordable housing. Thirty percent of an application's housing units must meet the state definition of being affordable, while 70 percent may be sold at market value.

"I think it's a thrown together development, which is more like a glorified trailer park than an affordable housing development," Kupinse said. "And I'm not so sure the sewer treatment plant they have is sufficient to handle the sewage. If there are problems, they ultimately fall on the town."

Lessler said the quality of the construction for the modular units in the proposal is unappealing and "the lowest possible." He also expressed concern over the increase in town services that a significant number of school-age children living in the housing could demand, and health concerns due to the close proximity of Mill River.

Kupinse said the town had appraised the South Park property at around $3.2 million last year. But both he and Lessler said one drawback of taking the property by eminent domain is that the town could pay the owner what it believes the land is worth, only to have a judge decide it is worth more, after the town is already committed to buying it.

"There are certainly other possibilities within the universe of possibilities," Lessler said of options for the Board of Selectmen to pursue. Among them, he said are negotiations between town officials and the developer for sale of the property to the town; for the developer to bring back a modified version of the age-restricted housing plan; or for another type of development to be proposed.

"We all have to put our thinking caps on," Lessler said.

Town park favored
Kupinse said a park "makes sense" because the town already owns open space property across the river and the Aspetuck Land Trust owns a chunk of property to the northwest of the parcel. He said the next step is for the Board of Selectmen to try to reach out to the property owner to see if there is any interest in selling the land to the town without pursuing eminent domain to take the property.

Andrew Kachele, a Board of Finance member, said he and his fellow board members had all agreed to fund the appraisal and park design to allow the Board of Selectmen to gather the information it needs to make a decision down the road. In the meantime, Kupinse said a decision on whether to approve the affordable housing plan rests with members of the P&Z and the Conservation Commission.

Fairfield Minuteman: www.zwire.com