Seniors say Griswold purchase too costly
By Rita Papazian
Published: Friday, January 15, 2010:

Seniors may oppose it, but environmentalists say purchasing the Griswold property will preserve diminishing coastal grasslands, an important habitat for birds. Photos show the Hudsonian Godwit during a 17 day stopover where he gorged on worms in the grasslands during his fall migration at neighboring Hammonassett Beach State Park. Photos by Bob MacDonnell.

By Rita Papzian, Special to the Times

MADISON – The town’s proposal to buy the 42-acre former Griswold Airport site south of the Boston Post Road has brought heightened awareness of the plight of the town’s senior citizens. Many believe their financial security living in town is threatened, not only with the burden of the economy but also the possibility of a rise in taxes to purchase the property that brings a $9.5 million price tag.

The Trust for Public Land, a national organization that helps municipalities preserve open space, will raise $1.7 million for the purchase.

The Board of Selectmen announced at its meeting Monday, Griswold property owners Leyland Alliance, LLC of Tuxedo Park, N.Y. agreed to a $200,000 reduction in the price to offset demolition and renovation costs. In addition, Leyland will place $150,000 in escrow to offset costs. The slight reduction in price will have no effect on the bonding, which has many residents, including long-time senior citizen residents bracing for a hike in taxes if the purchase should be approved by a referendum vote Jan. 26.

Town officials estimate the bonding will cost on average $68 per household for 20 years based on the average $400,000 assessed evaluation of a home in town. However, Barbara Davis, Stone Road, whose family’s roots date back to 1906 in town, told the selectmen that with the range of home values, taxpayers can realize a tax hike from $25 to $525 a year.

“It’s not just $68,” Davis said.

And, it’s not just the Griswold proposed purchase on taxes, but also the pending tax increase from the senior citizen and ambulance centers still to impact taxpayers, she said.

Davis called for a moratorium on all new proposals that increase taxes until the town can come up with new tax revenues for the Grand List.

Davis was among a group of senior citizens who attended Monday’s meeting to speak on behalf of their peers and also a silent sector of the population of all ages struggling to heat their homes, put food on the table and pay their tax bills.

Tammy Wayman, Garnet Park Road, said, “We can’t just balance the town budget on the backs of the taxpayers.” Wayman, who has not taken a stand on the proposed Griswold purchase, cited statistics from Social Services indicating an increase in requests for food and energy assistance from last year’s assistance.

“We’re helping these people, but for how much longer?” she said.

First Selectman Fillmore McPherson said, “This is a rich town, but not everyone is rich.”

Richard Gedney, Race Hill Road, who has lived in town the past 33 years, read a statement to the selectmen requesting they consider a tax freeze for senior citizens, age 75 or older with an income less than $57,500 and who have lived in town more than 35 years.

Gedney also addressed the issue of tax abatement. While the town had approved tax abatement with a cap representing one-half of one percent of the town budget, it has not fully funded the approved amount.

Owner of his own kitchen remodeling company, Gedney said long-time residents such as he and his wife have supported two high schools, three elementary schools, a Town Campus, two police departments and the Surf Club among other projects paid with tax dollars.

“People should not be in a position of having to sell their houses,” said Gedney, noting in addition to Griswold, the town is mulling library and Academy School projects.

Marlene Beckman, who with her husband Chuck, a retired construction engineer with Electric Boat in New London, have lived in their County Road home the past 45 years, She said instituting a tax freeze for senior citizens is “a compassionate thing to do…We are the ones who have made Madison what it is today.”

Beckman said residents in town are suffering from heat deprivation and malnutrition while attempting to save money to pay property taxes to remain in town.

“Before ‘wants,’ needs must be addressed. It is no longer business as usual.” Beckman said.

Freddie Schimansk, Bridle Path Lane, who emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1969 and has lived in town the past 22 years, warned the selectmen that “when people get pushed to the limit, uncontrollable things happen.”

McPherson said he would consider forming a committee to study tax relief for senior citizens and would be discussing the issue further to establish a charge for the committee.

Herb Gram, Boston Post Road, said the town’s proposed purchase of the Griswold property is a “one shot opportunity” that should not be missed. He said the proposed purchase and tax relief for the elderly were two separate issues, but tightly related.

“We do have a senior citizen tax relief problem and the Board of Selectmen needs to address it,” Gram said. However, he noted the $68 average tax cost per year was a “reasonable price” to pay for the property that had invaluable environmental benefits. Gram, a member of the Long Island Sound Authority, a watchdog for the body of water, noted the importance in cleaning up and protecting the 42-acre site, which is environmentally connected to Long Island Sound.

Shannon Schiessel agreed. “Don’t think this [Griswold] doesn’t affect our environment on a greater scale. This is an important fragile environmental piece. Nature doesn’t have boundaries.” She cited the town’s proposed purchase as “conservation at its best.”

While some opponents to the Griswold purchase cite the tax burden to senior citizens as a major reason, Gedney and others also believe the town should wait on a decision to purchase the site pending the report from the Land Acquisition Study Committee which is currently determining a “process” for the town to inventory available land and properties that may be available in the future. Waiting for the compiled inventory would give the town a broader picture of town purchases that will impact the tax burden, Gedney said.

In a telephone interview Monday afternoon, McPhearson said the availability of other land is a separate issue from the unique environmental and ecological benefits of the Griswold property.

“If all we wanted was to find places for ball fields, we would look in other places,” said McPherson, noting there’s nothing like the Griswold property available along the shoreline.

Joan O’Neill, chairwoman, said the committee expects to finalize a draft of its report come spring. O’Neill, a member of the Conservation Commission, is in favor of the Griswold purchase. “It is important to have a process to compile an inventory. In that way, the town can be proactive in its acquisitions and do better financial planning for purchases.

While she said she can’t speak for her committee in regard to the Griswold property, personally she believes the town “should preserve as much land as possible in that [Griswold] area. The proposed plan is excellent. It is a very separate issue and the timing is such that they couldn’t wait for the results of our study at this time.” She emphasized her committee is charged with coming up with a process, not an inventory of properties.

In working to establish a process for compiling an inventory, her committee has studied at least 10 other towns with inventories, including Guilford which has had a inventory in place the last 15 years.

Gedney believes the town should wait on the Griswold purchase. With the current climate of the economy, he doesn’t believe Leyland would be starting the project of building 127 units of adult living, ranging from condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes anytime soon. However, last fall, Howard Kaufman, a principal and general counsel for LeylandAlliance said the company is prepared to move forward with the project this spring should the town not purchase Griswold.

Recently GOP First Selectman McPherson and former Democratic first selectman Al Goldberg, who is still a board member, issued a joint statement in support of the proposed purchase. The two officials drew an analogy between the Griswold opportunity and the town’s purchase of the Surf Club 50 years ago.

“There was no plan in advance, but residents recognized that it was a waterfront parcel with potential,” they state. Although the Griswold site is not waterfront, its proximity to Long Island Sound, Hammonasett River and Hammonasett State Park contributes to its environmental appeal along with its rare coastal forest and salt marshes.

If approved, the BOS will establish a citizens committee to recommend park usage. There will be at least three playing fields (no lights or bleachers), designated walking trails, bird-viewing platforms, and a canoe/kayak launch. A small part of the land near the Boston Post Road will be considered for commercial development compatible with a park.

The selectmen say the town will pursue grants to help with the costs of purchase and renovations. “But none of this can happen until we own the land.

“Although many of us wish that Madison had bought the former airport when it could have been purchased for less than the current price, or that the state of Connecticut had purchased it, neither of these things happened.”

While some residents say the selling price is “too high” the selectmen noted “zoning makes the price a relative bargain…Recent appraisals have all come in at or above the agreed-upon price.

“This represents our last chance to own a beautiful coastal property which is currently zoned as buildable land, with all permits in place to build. This project will not have a second chance.”

Last month the BOS drew up a draft proposal for a Madison Saltview Park Commission of seven members appointed for three-year terms to be responsible for the stewardship, management and development of the 42-acre Griswold site. The commission will be charged with finding the highest and best use of the land for recreation, conservation and some limited potential economic development, subject to established criteria including no fewer than three athletic fields with intent to conserve greater than 50 percent of the property for access to preserved areas with walking trails, benches, viewing platforms, etc. The commission will report equally to the Beach and Recreation Commission and to the BOS.

The town has scheduled a special public town meeting on the proposed Griswold purchase for Tues., Jan. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Robert H. Brown Middle School, Durham Road. The referendum is slated for Jan. 26. Absentee ballots for the referendum vote are available in the town clerk’s office during regular business hours. On Sat., Jan. 23 the town clerk’s office will be open from 9 a.m. to noon for anyone who would like to fill out an absentee ballot.