Developer Suggests State's Controversial Land Swap May Be Revived

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.

Featured Stories