By Ben Rayner
The shouts started early and lasted into the night last week when [Branford CT] residents and town officials discussed the newest development proposal for the Queach property. With the announcement shortly after the meeting that First Selectman Cheryl Morris would back eminent domain seizure of the parcel, the shouting seems to have been heard.
The 159-acre Queach parcel owned by local developer Alex Vigliotti was a pen stroke away from becoming a golf course just a few years ago but now has become the rope in a tug of war between the owner, town officials, environmentalists, and Branford taxpayers.
However, in an unexpected move just a day after the meeting Morris has asked the RTM to support the use of eminent domain to the size the property if necessary. The administration was in favor the RTM's passage of a resolution to seize the parcel back in November but, after the election, a focal point of criticism was the announcement that negotiations with the developer were still in progress.
“The town has spoken, they don't want it [development]. I think this was a fair process and done the right way. The public spoke as one on this, Morris said.
The crowd may have helped the Morris administration choose sides – almost every public comment at last week's meeting was in favor of seizing the parcel immediately by eminent domain regardless of cost. In stark contrast to other municipalities where this issue has lined up residents against eminent domain, Branford voters seem to want it enforced in this instance.
Morris said of her decision to move forward with eminent domain, “I felt it was too critical and too important for taxpayers not to be involved in this process. This is a huge issue for Branford.”
Al Ippolito, attorney for developer Alex Vigliotti, did not wish to comment when told of the administration's decision to move forward with eminent domain. Morris had been heavily criticized by some opponents for negotiating with the developer after the RTM voted to both approve and fund an eminent domain seizure of the property.
“Eminent domain was always a last resort and I would be negligent if I did not put this proposal before the taxpayers of Branford,” Morris said at the meeting.
After the decision was announced Morris said she was disappointed in the tenor of some of the attacks on her and her administration but said that her effort was simply to make sure the process was open and impartial and that resident's concerns were heard.
“Some of the accusations were unfair in that they were unfounded. Many assumed that I was somehow advocating for development or a deal; I wasn't. I always felt it was far better to reach a negotiated settlement than to go down road of eminent domain but the people want this,” Morris said.
The Vigliotti plan was complicated and has many contingencies. Much of the information, such as percentage of run-off allowed, effectiveness of 55-and-over senior housing restrictions, and Grand List impact are disputed by various sides of the issue.
Experts including engineers disagreed over how sensitive the land is and what the actual environmental impact could be. Financial experts were also divided on how development would effect taxes.
In the end, voters simply did not want development and in this case they have indicated they want their government to exercise enforcement of the eminent domain statute.
“I don't think they [Morris administration] had a hell of a lot of choice. The voice of the public spoke loud and clear last week, “RTM member Kurt Schwanfelder [R] said in response to the announcement. “I'm pleased that we had the turnout we did. I'm happy to see the community pull together. This is the right direction for the town, I think.”
Tom Cleveland was also pleased. Cleveland was instrumental in getting a state-of-the-art fishway constructed recently at the Supply Ponds, an environmentally sensitive area that was in danger of being adversely affected by any development.
“I think this is a good sign that the Board of Selectman is listening to the will of the electorate,” Cleveland said. “We will be watching to se how vigorously the acquisition of the property is pursued.”
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