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Updated: July 27, 2020 Town Profile: Simsbury

$6M Simsbury land sale would sink controversial affordable housing development

Image | Contributed Nearly 300 acres of undeveloped land in north Simsbury could be preserved as open space if a pending $6-million land deal is finalized.

A controversial Simsbury housing development that included an affordable component and has been on the table for more than two decades, would officially be dead if a pending $6-million land sale to a California-based conservation nonprofit is completed in the months ahead.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), which has been an active acquirer and preserver of land in Connecticut since 1986, is in negotiations to purchase 288 acres of rolling fields and tobacco barns in the northern section of town that would be preserved as farmland and open and recreational space.

The property — situated west of Hopmeadow Street, abutting Hoskins and Firetown roads, and near the International Skating Center of Connecticut — would also pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., who worked on Simsbury tobacco fields as a young man during the 1940s.

The land is currently owned by commercial landlord Griffin Industrial Realty Inc., which first proposed its Meadowood residential development in 1999 as a 640-home subdivision that would include around 160 (or 25%) affordable dwellings.

The town rejected the project several times, ultimately leading to a prolonged court battle that wasn’t settled until almost a decade later, when Simsbury agreed to allow Griffin to proceed with development of 296 homes — including 88 affordable units — as long as it remediated the site.

The cleanup was completed in 2014, town records show, but the development never happened.

Earlier this year, New York-based Griffin Industrial announced that it was shifting its business model to focus on managing and leasing industrial/warehouse space, which is why the company is seeking to exit the Meadowood residential development, though it remains an alternative use for the site if the TPL deal falls through, according to Tim Lescallet, Griffin Industrial’s senior vice president.

Photo | Contributed
Historic barnes in the proposed Meadowood development site in Simsbury.

“While we believe the sale to the Trust for Public Land is at a price below the value we could have achieved through a development on the land, we are pleased that by working with TPL we can enable a project that will benefit so many conservation and preservation interests in the community,” Lescallet said.

Simsbury First Selectman Eric Wellman said he believes the conservation land purchase will have the support of residents, who will ultimately be asked to shoulder a third of the purchase price.

TPL is asking the town for $2.2 million to help finance the deal.

“Being able to preserve in perpetuity the look and feel of the north side of town, which has a history of farming, is an incredible opportunity,” Wellman said.

Honor Lawler, a Connecticut project manager for TPL, said the Simsbury Meadowood property appeared on her nonprofit’s radar screen about a year ago.

Aside from the opportunity to preserve significant open space, the nonprofit was drawn to the land’s historic roots, she said.

As a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, civil rights icon King spent two summers working in Farmington Valley tobacco fields, including in Simsbury farmland, Lawler said.

TPL’s plans for the site include preserving 3 acres of historic barns and creating an interpretive display to honor the civil rights leader and movement.

Other plans include preserving:

• 138 acres as open space that could be used for new trails;

• 24 acres for future athletic fields;

• and 117 acres of farmland.

“We really think this serves the community through a number of public benefits,” Lawler said.

Protecting places

TPL was founded nearly 50 years ago in San Francisco and has had a presence in Connecticut since 1986.

Its mission is to create parks and protect land for public use or conservation.

Its New Haven office has helped protect 93 Connecticut properties spread across 7,600 acres with a fair market value of $150 million, according Walker Holmes, the nonprofit’s state director.

“Our goal is to catalyze communities to be healthier and more connected,” Holmes said. “We work with communities to protect the places that matter most.”

[Read more: HBJ examines developments in CT towns, cities]

TPL has already been involved in two previous Simsbury projects, including protecting 427 acres of forest, fields and wetlands known as the Ethel Walker Woods, located near the private Ethel Walker School on Bushy Hill Road.

The Meadowood land sits between the Massacoe State Forest and 4,400-acre McLean Game Refuge. The goal is to connect all three sites to create an expansive network of new trails, Lawler said.

About 117 acres would be preserved as working farmland that could be leased to local farms, she added.

The biggest challenge to moving the deal forward is obtaining financing for the $6-million purchase. The Trust is pursuing several capital sources in addition to the town funding, including a state open space grant as well as grants from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture and state historic preservation office.

Wellman, the first selectman, said he hopes the project gets all necessary local approvals in the coming months so the proposed town funding can be voted on in a referendum this November.

“At the end of the day our residents are going to have the final say,” Wellman said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has put pressure on his and all other Connecticut municipalities’ budgets, which could impact voters’ appetites in supporting the open space purchase.

TPL has signed a purchase contract with Griffin Industrial that expires next February. If the deal isn’t finalized by then, the deadline could be extended another six months, Lawler said.

“We have a really good track record of completing our projects, but it doesn’t come without its challenges,” Lawler said. “We are pretty confident this is what the community wants and it provides a lot of public benefits.”

Some criticism

The move away from an affordable housing project comes as there is growing pressure at the state level to enforce zoning reforms on Connecticut municipalities, especially the state’s wealthier suburbs that often fight residential projects meant for lower-income people.

The town of Simsbury spent years earlier this century opposing the Meadowood subdivision with the issue eventually reaching the state Supreme Court, which ruled the municipality improperly blocked the development.

A settlement was reached in 2008 between the town and Griffin Industrial to allow a scaled-back project.

Earlier this month, a coalition of affordable-housing advocates gathered outside the state Capitol to demand lawmakers to tackle the issue of housing segregation in Connecticut, whose cities have significantly higher populations of low-income residents.

The movement is gaining momentum amid the broader calls for social justice sweeping the nation following the death of George Floyd Jr. in Minneapolis.

Wellman said one of the few complaints he’s heard about the conservation purchase is that it undercuts new affordable housing. However, he said an affordable housing project would be better served being located closer to downtown where there is easier access to public transportation.

Currently, only about 4% of housing in Simsbury — a predominantly white suburb — is considered affordable, according to a 2018 data analysis by the nonprofit Partnership for Strong Communities.

“I’m all for affordable housing,” Wellman said. “This isn’t the spot I would have chosen.”

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