Walking through the long-empty village of Johnsonville in East Haddam, even on a bright and sunny spring day, can imbue you with a sense of forlorn.
The houses and buildings are deteriorating. The pretty white-picket fence that runs along one side of the narrow road that bisects the village has chipped and peeling paint. The place is so quiet you can hear, no matter where you are in the village, the sound of the waterfall from a small pond on the property.
Once a thriving mill village and later a tourist resort, Johnsonville has sat empty since about the early 1990s when its owner, Raymond Schmitt, got into a dispute with local zoning officials and closed the resort. After he died in 1998 his heirs auctioned off all Schmitt’s holdings, including Johnsonville.
A hotel developer, MJABC LLC, bought the 64-acre property with its odd collection of 19th century buildings in 2008 and soon after filed plans for a mixed-use development on the site that included 133 upscale, single-family houses and townhouses, all built in Victorian style and with an age restriction for owners. The plans also called for a health club, recreation center, meeting hall and post office, and for keeping and restoring most of the original dozen or so buildings.
That proposal fell apart, however, because the housing component was deemed too high-density.
While MJABC LLC still owns the property and continues to pay taxes on it, local officials say the company is trying to sell it. A Meriden-based soup kitchen has expressed an interest in it for an affordable housing project, but Melissa Ziobron, the town’s economic development coordinator, says the town will only support a project that represents the “best and highest use” of the village – mainly a project similar to what MJABC proposed, but with a scaled-back housing component.
And while the town waits for that “best and highest use” development, Johnsonville sits empty.