Guilford debates $15.5M for open space

Thursday, January 15, 2009 6:53 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — A town meeting Wednesday on a plan to appropriate nearly $15.5 million to purchase the Goss property north of Clapboard Hill Road drew about 100 residents, who questioned town officials and debated the topic for two hours.

Wednesday’s meeting was the precursor to a townwide referendum on the question slated for Jan. 27. The town plans to preserve the properties adjacent to the East River, owned by the Goss and Zipp families, mainly as open space, with about 50 acres for municipal use.

First Selectman Carl Balestracci said before the meeting that the town charter requires all appropriations of more than $1 million go directly to referendum, so no vote was taken on the issue at the town meeting.

The town has a secured a $3 million federal grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would go toward the bond, Balestracci said at the meeting. That would leave taxpayers with a tab of about $12.5 million, and projected interest payments of $6 million, he said.

The average annual tax increase over the 20-year life of the bond, he said, would be 27 cents for every $1,000 of assessed home value. That means that for a house assessed at $400,000, the average increase would be $108 per year.

Board of Finance Member James O’Keefe said that his calculations show that the town would save money on the purchase by preventing it from being developed into a multi-lot property. The owners submitted a plan about three years ago to put more than 100 homes on the land.

O’Keefe said that, assuming the development included 125 lots with homes assessed at $700,000, it would produce $1.6 million per year in property taxes, 30 percent of which would go toward municipal services. Also assuming one student per house, the cost to the town for education would be about $1.4 million, O’Keefe said.

“Fiscally, it absolutely makes no sense not to do this (purchase) despite the tough economic times,” O’Keefe said.

Resident Gina Russell Tracy, who said she supported the project in the past, said that she does not believe the town can afford it at this point.

“We’re in a much different financial situation than we were three years ago when I spoke in favor of this purchase,” she said. “We live in times where each of us has to decide between needs and wants.”

Several people questioned whether there might be private funding for the purchase, and Balestracci said that the town is pursuing the possibility of individual donors. Any funds raised would go toward paying down the bond, he said.

Stephen Goldschmidt said he thinks the purchase makes sense for environmental and financial reasons.

“We may take on a cost here, an investment, that will actually unburden our children and grandchildren,” he said. “It almost sounds like a no-brainer to me – that we would be giving up a golden opportunity.”

The referendum on the purchase is scheduled for Jan. 27 at Guilford Fire Headquarters, 390 Church St.

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