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Developer Suggests State's Controversial Land Swap May Be Revived

Jon Lender

Government Watch

4:25 PM EDT, March 30, 2013

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Last year, conservationists celebrated the death of the so-called Haddam land swap — a controversial deal approved by the state legislature in 2011 to let private developers acquire 17 acres of state-owned land overlooking the Connecticut River in exchange for 87 acres of woods they owned elsewhere in town.

But the deal — which grew to symbolic importance for its opponents in the environmental movement — may still have a heartbeat.

At least that's what Steve Rocco, a member of the development group that announced last April that it had pulled out of the deal, told a legislative committee in Hartford last week. Rocco showed up at a hearing to testify against a new bill, sought by conservationists, to erase from state statutes the 2011 enabling language for the land swap.

"This is unfinished business," Rocco, one of the partners in Riverhouse Properties, told the General Assembly's government administration committee at a public hearing.

Noting that the swap was killed last year by unfavorable property appraisals, Rocco said: "The partners of the Riverhouse have not come to a conclusion about whether or not to go back to the [state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection] or pursue a challenge of the appraisals legally, or other methods available."

That was a big uh-oh for some Haddam residents and conservationists from elsewhere in the state, about 30 of whom submitted written testimony in favor of repealing the enabling language.

A few of them had been quietly in touch with legislators in hopes of passing the repeal without attracting controversy, and burying the deal for good. That would have prevented the potential replay of a statewide political drama that pitted environmentalists against Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his environmental commissioner, Dan Esty, during the Democratic administration's first year in office.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and her environmental commissioner had consistently blocked the land swap each time it was proposed in recent years. Rell actually vetoed it once, in 2009.

The state environmental agency purchased the 17 acres for $1.3 million in 2003 under a program intended to conserve open space for public use. Rell's onetime environmental chief, Amey Marrella, had said that if the state released such properties to developers, it "would be taking a step backwards in our statutory mandate to acquire and preserve open space lands."

Environmentalists went a step further: They said private landowners would be unwilling to donate land to the state in the future if the swap were approved, out of fear that the state wouldn't honor their wish that the property be held for the public.

Democrats often claim to carry the banner of environmentalism — and yet it was only after Democrats took over the governor's office from the Republicans in 2011 that the land swap received approval.

The biggest force behind the land swap was Sen. Eileen Daily of Westbrook, the powerful Democrat who served as the legislature's finance committee chairwoman. Daily kept pushing Rocco's proposal for three years, despite Rell's rebuffs, until she finally encountered no resistance from a new Democratic governor — who clearly did not want to get on her wrong side. Malloy and his lieutenants believed that they needed Daily's cooperation in dealing with the state's massive budget crisis, which, in their estimation, outweighed the importance of the issue of preserving the open space, numerous sources have said.

Both Malloy and Esty ultimately okayed the deal; the governor asked if he should sign the land-swap bill, and Esty said there was no reason he shouldn't.

It's unclear what will happen now that Rocco has put the swap back up for discussion. Daily, who championed the deal, is now gone from the legislature — she didn't run for re-election in 2012.

A key uncertainty is the intentions of the developers. Rocco acknowledged in his testimony last week that he was "the person most involved with this proposal from the start," saying he'd put six years and thousands of dollars into the proposal and hoped "all of this effort should not just suddenly be made to disappear by one anonymous line in a bill two years later."

"At this point my partners and I have not come to an agreement as to whether or not to pursue the exchange again," Rocco said. On Friday, he said in a phone interview that he'd been speaking "only for myself" at Monday's hearing, which he'd only heard about that day, and wanted to "preserve the option" of reviving the deal.

The Courant sought to reach Rocco's three partners in Riverhouse properties — Trevor Furrer, Mark Poole and Jim Bucko — but they did not return calls or emails Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The DEEP and Esty weren't taking a position last week on either the repeal or revival of the swap. "It was a decision of the legislature to offer the swap of land in Haddam and it is now certainly within the power of the legislature to withdraw this offer," said Dennis Schain, Esty's public spokesman at DEEP.

Like others close to the dispute over the swap, Schain said the 2011 enabling legislation still appears to allow for the possibility of a revival of the land swap now, two years later. "From a fair reading of the legislation that authorized the land swap," he said, "one could reasonably conclude that there is no deadline established by which the deal either has to be completed or it dies."

Daily has been replaced as senator by youthful Republican Art Linares of Westbrook, who said during his campaign that he opposed the swap.

The House member who represents Haddam, Democrat Phil Miller, vehemently opposed the swap in 2011, and has played a behind-the-scenes role in putting together this year's repeal legislation — which is part of a larger "conveyance" bill under which the state disposes of surplus properties such as unused highway rights of way.

The bill is expected to be approved in both the House and Senate before adjournment of the legislative session on June 5, but whether it gets amended from his present form — which includes the repeal — is another matter.

The main arguments in favor of the swap came from economic-development and chamber-of-commerce representatives in the region, as well as some local town officials — who said the state-owned land, overlooking the renowned swing-bridge to Goodspeed Opera House, was a former sand pit overgrown with weeds and not being utilized for any significant public benefit.

A commercial development of the 17 acres, which abut the developers' Riverhouse banquet facility on a hill above the river, would be a better use, proponents said. Rocco, the developer, has said that the idea for the swap began years ago "with a suggestion by DEP, as a way for them to improve their own holdings." The developers said their 87 wooded acres in Haddam's Higganum section would be a good addition to the adjacent Cockaponset State Forest.

Malloy and Esty maintained in 2011 that the public was protected by the land-swap bill's requirement that independent appraisals be obtained on each of the properties. And it was those appraisals — which said the state's land was worth $1.3 million more than the developers — that caused the developers to pull out. Rocco, the developer who spoke up last week, is still talking about challenging those valuations.

The land swap's opponents remained adamant last week. Leaders of conservation groups, including Margaret Miner of the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut and Melissa Schlag of Citizens for Protection of Public Lands, supported the repeal bill. "The repeal of this [land-swap language] restores lost faith in the system of conserving public land," Schlag said.

"The evidence that any swap is a bad idea [continues] to be overwhelming," wrote Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, Wesleyan University professor emeritus of earth science.

But their comments were tame compared what state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said at Monday's hearing.

"Mr. Rocco, in my eight years as a legislator I have never seen a transaction that stunk as much as this one," said Meyer, who is vice chairman of the government administration committee and co-chairman of the environment committee, "That vote and transaction was something dishonorable for the State of Connecticut," Meyer said, adding that approving the repeal would mean "that we will never ever bring up this transaction again."

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter @jonlender.