Esty Leaving Malloy Administration, But What Will His Legacy Be?

Photo courtesty of cleanenergycouncil.org

The state-government half of one of Connecticut's political power couples is departing Gov. Malloy's administration and heading back to academia, and there's a real question about what Daniel Esty is leaving in his wake.

Esty (husband of U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5), has been Malloy's commissioner of energy and environmental protection since 2011. He's now returning to resume his career as a professor at Yale University, which gave him a three-year leave of absence to join Malloy's team.

He came in to the administration with all kinds of support from Connecticut environmentalists, but that soon faded. Malloy merged the state's energy and environmental protection agencies, and some critics rapidly came to the conclusion that Esty was a lot more about promoting energy and business than he was about protecting the environment.

One of his earliest problems came along soon after he took the job as commissioner. It was called the "Haddam Land Swap Deal," and it left a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people.

The deal involved the proposal to let commercial developers have 17 acres of state land overlooking the Connecticut River in Haddam. The swap would have given the state 87 acres of land owned by the developers in another section of Haddam.

The swap was being pushed by one of the powers in the legislature, Sen. Eileen Daly, D-Westbrook. She happened to be one of the lawmakers whose support Malloy really wanted to get his budget plans through the General Assembly.

Environmentalists were furious with the idea. They hated the loss of any state land to more development, particularly a prime piece with views of the big river.

Daly insisted it would be good for economic development. When Republican M. Jodi Rell was governor, she vetoed legislation to make the swap happen.

Esty tried his darnedest to dodge the whole issue. He repeatedly refused to answer questions about where he stood as head of the environmental protection agency.

When the 17 acres was aquired by the state in 2003, the deed specified that it should be "retained as in its natural scenic... condition as a park or open space."

But Esty insisted that wasn't a binding condition on the state.

In 2011, despite opposition from groups like the Sierra Club, Daly got her bill through and Malloy finally asked Esty for an opinion. Esty's response was that the state's "conservation and recreation agenda is not harmed" by the land swap, and the governor signed the bill.

The whole issue died the following year when a new state appraisal found the land along the Connecticut River was worth $1.3 million more than the land the developers were offering in exchange.

The issue may have died, but the impression the controversy left in the minds of many environmentalists about where Esty stood came to color the remainder of his term in office.

Esty, in his letter of resignation, insists that he's proud of his record. "We have demonstrated that we can protect our natural resources and quality of life while strengthening our economy and creating jobs."

There are some who would disagree with the first part of that statement.