Several environmental groups from across the state are meeting this afternoon to review the legalities of the Haddam land swap, recently approved by the legislature, and whether there are grounds to sue to overturn the state’s approval of the swap.
The meeting is being hosted by the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, a Litchfield-based nonprofit that seeks to protect Connecticut's rivers, streams and watersheds.
The alliance’s director, Margaret Miner, said today the group is worried about the Haddam Land Exchange, as it is called by the state, not only because of the impact it could have on the Connecticut River but its broader legal implications on conservation lands elsewhere in the state.
The group is meeting with officials from other conservation organizations in Connecticut to determine if there is a way to legally overturn the legislature’s recent passage of a bill allowing the swap of 17.4 state-owned acres near the Connecticut River in Haddam for 87.7 privately-owned acres near the Cockaponset State Forest across town in Haddam, in the village of Higganum.
The state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection bought the 17.4 acres for $1.3 million, using funds from its Recreation & Natural Heritage Trust Program, which seeks to conserve land. The state now wants to give the property, which overlooks the Connecticut River and has sweeping vistas of the iconic Haddam Swing Bridge and Goodspeed Opera House, to a private developer in exchange for the Higganum land the developer owns. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy approved the measure this month.
The developer, who also owns the Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station on property that abuts the 17.4 acres, wants to build retail development on the land, as well as a boutique hotel and other developments to complement the banquet facility.
One of the groups that will take part in today’s meeting is the Citizens for Protection of Public Land, a grassroots group that formed locally to oppose the Haddam Land Exchange.
When the proposal first came up “I think the first question everyone had about it was “Is that legal?” Miner said. “Some of us are interested in the principle and the precedent being set.”
Her group, she added, is concerned that the state has opened the door to bartering away some of the thousands of acres of open space Connecticut has purchased under the Recreation & Natural Heritage Trust Program.
“I’m not at all reassured that this is a one-time thing,” Miner said.
Environmental groups like her’s, she added, also are concerned that the land swap came through the legislature and was approved by Malloy without being vetted first by the DEEP.
“This horse ran around the starting gate and then just took off,” she said. “We’d like to go back to the starting gate.”
The group meeting today to discuss legal strategies hasn’t formalized any plans yet and has not hired a lawyer, “But we know lawyers and some of our members are lawyers,” Miner said.
According to recent emails between the Rivers Alliance members and members of other conservation groups interested in the Haddam Land Exchange, some of the legal issues under consideration include: Does the land swap comply with the state’s constitution? Does it represent an illegal property seizure? Does potential pollution of the Tylerville land mean it can’t be transferred without a cleanup plan? Is there language within the Recreational & Natural Heritage Trust Program that would limit how the land is transferred and used?
Miner, along with the leaders and members of other environmental groups, have written countless letters and have contacted the DEEP repeatedly to voice their concerns about the swap. In a recent response to Miner, DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty said the land swap “does not change the Department’s fundamental goal of preserving high-value conservation and recreation land for future generations.”
A PDF of Esty’s entire letter is available above, as is a letter he sent to Malloy outlining his concerns about the land swap before it was approved.