For at least 20 years, the state of Connecticut has wanted to preserve undeveloped land. It has bought some properties and helped towns and land trusts to buy land. The state officially has a goal of keeping 21 percent of its land undeveloped, and it wants to meet this goal in only 12 years. The clock is ticking – so how well are we doing?
Would you believe that no one knows?
And because no one knows, the General Assembly was considering Senate Bill 829, which calls for spending a half million dollars to pay the University of Connecticut’s Center for Land Use Education and Research to come up with an accurate database that can be brought up to date easily. The bill made it out of committee but then was left out of the appropriations package, and so is effectively dead in this legislative session.
A year ago, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that the state was 77 percent of the way there. But with the potential for thousands of protected acres in towns unreported, it’s natural to wonder if perhaps the state is doing better than this.
The state Department of Environmental Protection was last able to answer the question, “How much land is protected?” in 1997.
The DEP began work on updating those maps several years ago, but the project, called Protected Open Space Mapping or POSM, doesn’t include much of eastern Connecticut, especially along the coast. For now, POSM has halted for lack of funding.
“POSM is playing opossum,” said Sandy Breslin, director of government relations for Audubon Connecticut, an organization that favors the bill to establish an inventory.
Breslin, in a phone interview, said that saving land is not just for views and human recreation. “The wildlife that depends on open space for its survival doesn’t know town boundaries,” she said, “and they don’t know the difference between federal and state and municipal land.”
Breslin said that knowing how much land all of Connecticut’s municipalities have protected is vital to the state’s ability to take control of protecting green corridors of land.
Open space has long been a big part of how towns plan for the future. The Council on Environmental Quality scolded the state for its lack of knowledge in its recently released annual report. “We have a goal set in state law on how much land should be permanently protected for the future,” said the CEQ Executive Director Karl Wagener, “and it seems a major gap, or deficiency, that we don’t really know how much we have.”
Wagener said that the whole state ought to be able to plan for which land needs preserving as well as the recently released Highlands project report, a multi-state, quasi-government effort to protect a green swath from the Middle Atlantic States along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, swinging through Connecticut’s northwest corner.
To get a sense of just how far the state has to go with this information, try viewing the data already placed on maps. Go to this site: http://ctecoapp1.uconn.edu/simpleviewer/ezviewer.htm. On the left side of the page, scroll down to “Open Space.” Then click on “Protected Open Space Mapping.” The map on the right will automatically load.
Zooming in on coastal and eastern Connecticut shows no data on this map because, Wagener said, POSM did not complete its work in many of those towns.
Data from 1997 can be viewed by clicking on “1997 Municipal and Private Open Space” on the left side of the page. The map at right will show properties in various colors, designating parks, forests, preserves, and school property.
Based on these maps, then, the state:
- Knows about (acquired a half century ago) but does not know about the 77-acre Summer Hill property in North Madison, near Hammonasset Reservoir, acquired just this year.
- Knows about Bluff Point Coastal Reserve and Haley Farm State Park in Groton, but not about the 76-acre Merritt Family Forest, acquired in 2008.
- Does not know about hundreds of acres (out of 2,500 total) preserved by the Avalonia Land Conservation Trust in Groton, Ledyard, Stonington, North Stonington, Griswold, Preston, and Voluntown.
- Knows about in Waterford but not about acreage set aside as open land in subdivisions since regulations added that provision decades ago.
It seemed that it might be easy for a smart person to gather the lists of protected land from a town. But it’s not. Most towns have that information, but not in one place. Since not all land that has been protected from development is open to the public, an inventory is not the simple matter of making a list of public parks and nature preserves.
One town clerk told me I was welcome to come down there and do research in the land records, but that she wasn’t sure who might have a list.