Heritage Park Planners Seek Council Consensus On Lease Proposal
Representatives of Sandy Hook Organization for Prosperity (SHOP ) and a partner/benefactor appeared before the Legislative Council on March 20 to review plans for a pocket park they hope to develop on a town-owned parcel in Sandy Hook Center.
Proponents for the The Heritage Park, proposed for a former garage site at 7 Glen Road, told the council they hoped to beautify the environmentally compromised site after capping it.
Preliminary computer renderings illustrate a tree lined-parking area and small pavilion that would also serve as the trail head for a Heritage walking tour of the area, according to SHOP spokesperson Michael Burton and community partner and builder Chris Hottois.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal told The Newtown Bee following the meeting that he had done some preliminary consultation with the town attorney and before moving any further, he wanted to bring the developers before the council to answer any questions and determine whether the project had support.
Mr Rosenthal said it would be a waste of time and money if the town moved forward trying to negotiate a lease with SHOP for the property; it had the potential of being voted down by a majority of council members. Mr Burton also explained to the council that a measure of fundraising for the project was already completed, and leaders of his organization did not want to move forward unless it was clear there was a project that would fulfill their vision for the lot.
“Approximately $20,000 has already been raised,” Mr Burton told the council. In addition, Mr Hottois and his business partner, Chris Wilson, have pledged an additional $50,000 in the form of a matching grant, to stimulate fundraising.
Mr Rosenthal said that a Licensed Environmental Professional (LEP) has already advised the town that the parcel could retain some functionality if it was capped. The site of a former auto garage that was foreclosed upon by the town for back taxes under the Llodra administration, the parcel was initially targeted for sale and marketed as such.
But because of certain unknowns related to likely environmental contamination, Mr Rosenthal said any buyer would be responsible for cleaning up the site, and the cost to accomplish that could be extensive. As a result, no serious offers were made when the parcel was on the commercial market.
Best Possible Use
For that reason, Mr Rosenthal thought the best possible current use would involve the town retaining ownership and some liability coverage over the lot, and permitting SHOP to lease the land and fundraiser toward the development of the proposed park and pavilion.
He told the council that capping the parcel with a parking area and pavilion would not forestall any future private acquisition. He later said that at this time, it seems unlikely that a private buyer would purchase it due to the unknown costs that would have to be expended by a new owner for the cleanup.
“The SHOP organization is eager to move forward with fundraising for the project, so I wanted to gauge whether there was any widespread opposition to it,” Mr Rosenthal said.
It has been determined that the town could lease the parcel to SHOP and retain ownership and most of the liability indemnity if someone was somehow injured while on that parcel — similar to any other public park or site in town.
While council members appeared to be in agreement that taxpayer funds should not be used to develop the park project or other elements of the Heritage walking trail, most council members expressed tentative support for the project, including Chairman Paul Lundquist.
“Paul and several others liked the idea of a beautification project at that parcel,” Mr Rosenthal said. “But understandably, the council wants some clarity on who will be handling future maintenance at the site, including things like clearing snow and plowing.”
Mr Rosenthal said since it was permissible for the town to enter a lease agreement with SHOP, he left the council meeting with the feeling there was enough consensus of support to come back as soon as possible with a term sheet.
“If the parcel is capped, we achieve the desired environmental benefit,” the first selectman added. “It will attract more people and traffic to Sandy Hook center and has great potential to improve property values.”
During the meeting, Councilman Phil Carroll said he wanted to see the parcel sold and returned to the tax roles as promised when the foreclosure authorizations were sought.
Mr Hottois countered, saying the site is environmentally compromised and had been marketed for sale prior to the foreclosure in 2014.
“It’s been 14 years since it was vacant, with no lights and no pavement,” he said. “So we need to address the environmental situation with a rational approach that is sound and economically feasible [while] placing the town in a relatively neutral position economically.”
Sandy Hook Asset
Mr Hottois said it could cost hundreds of thousands if the town sought to remediate the lot, and the town still might not sell it. He said that the SHOP plan provides a forward-thinking approach for the town and gets the property in a position where it is an asset and attraction to Sandy Hook center.
Mr Carroll reminded his council colleagues that the town foreclosed being owed $340k in back taxes, then spent another $30,000 to raze the garage that was left there.
“The town can make a lease for anybody and cap it off,” Mr Carroll said.
Mr Hottois said ignoring all possible environmental implications, a buyer could only develop a 4,000-square-foot building there that could generate $14,000 to $18,000 a year in property taxes. But if a park was built, property values around the area would increase five to eight percent.
“That will get you the same or more tax revenue associated with that single property,” he said. The estimated cost to complete the park on that parcel as envisioned is $286,000 — which would be generated exclusively through SHOP fundraising, in-kind work donated by benefactors, and the $50,000 matching grant pledge.
Council member Jordana Bloom seemed motivated to move forward with the plan.
“It’s contaminated, and we have an entire business community eager to get fundraising going,” she said. “It seems irresponsible to not make this happen. It’s the most positive thing to put on the spot and would improve prop[erty] values.”
Mr Rosenthal concurred, saying that supporting the SHOP project as proposed seemed to be the most eloquent solution for repurposing the empty lot, which has been called part of the “gateway to Sandy Hook.”