The Wilton Land Conservation Trust is up against a deadline–they want to apply for state grant money to complete the purchase of 183 Ridgefield Rd. in order to ‘save’ it from development and preserve it as open space. But the Trust’s requests for support from two town boards–the Board of Selectmen and the Conservation Commission–haven’t been fulfilled yet, as officials asked to see the completed application before giving that support.

The selectmen heard the request from Land Trust director Donna Merrill and president Peter Gaboriault at the board’s last meeting on Jan. 7. They’ll take up the matter again at tonight BOS meeting (8 p.m. at Town Hall).

The Land Trust is under contract to purchase the parcel for $2,050,000, with a deadline of December 31, 2019; if the purchase can’t be completed, the property will revert back to the original owner, the family of developer James Fieber. [The property is currently owned in the interim by the Foster Family Charitable Foundation, and the Land Trust’s purchase is contingent on receiving the grant.]

The group launched its fundraising campaign last October, and already has in excess of $1 million promised toward the campaign. However, although they’ll continue to fundraise in the community, it’s unlikely they could raise enough through individual donations alone. That’s where the state grant comes in.

The grant the Land Trust is applying for is part of the Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program, run by the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The group has asked for 65% of the purchase price–$1,332,500–the maximum ask allowed under the program. It’s a competitive grant, and will be considered against other applications, and according to Merrill, the program has $5 million to grant to all applicants–the state may give the full amount, a portion of it, or none at all.

Merrill said it’s more likely that the Land Trust would receive “in the vicinity of 50%, that’s what we’re looking at, 40-50%.”

She added that the group will continue to actively fundraise, as one of the grant requirements is that the recipient raise matching funds. “We’ve been wildly successful, it has been wonderfully received by the people here.”

The grant application asks whether “the proposed acquisition received approval or support from municipal, regional or executive boards and/or land trust(s)” and request letters of support that detail “how the proposed project addresses an identified need/goal in the local and/or regional open space plan or Plan of Conservation and Development.”

Merrill listed several benefits the Land Trust sees in preserving the 14 acres as open space–among them, protecting natural resources and the character of the town, “which is a sense of openness, our historic past, our stone walls, our scenic vistas.”

The grant application also requires that, “All land acquisitions must be accessible to the public, without limitation(s). Acquired permanent interest in land (Conservation Easements) shall provide for public access in accordance with Connecticut General Statue Sections 7-131d(e).”

Merrill told the selectmen that the Land Trust would be working in collaboration with the Wilton Historical Society, Woodcock Nature Center and the American Chestnut Foundation to establish educational program at the site.

[Editor’s Note:  GOOD Morning Wilton reached twice out to both Merrill and Gaboriault to clarify what activities and the extent of public access the Land Trust would allow on the property. We also asked if any portion of the property would be paved to allow for visitor parking or school bus access. Neither Merrill or Gaboriault responded to the request.

In addition we asked if the Trust has applied for tax exempt status. While we didn’t receive an answer from Land Trust officials, we obtained copies of a letter from the Wilton Assessor’s office denying one request from the Foster Foundation for tax exemption, saying town lawyers found that the property is not yet restricted for open space; and a declaration dated Dec. 6 from attorney Patricia Frisch on behalf of the Foster Foundation that the land will be held under a restriction and used for open space purposes. Those documents can be found here:  183 Ridgefield Rd. Tax Exemption documents]

One point of contention was raised by first selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, regarding Merrill’s explanation of how the property could provide connectivity with both the NRVT and Wilton Center. The Land Trust has obtained permission from the three neighbors to the south for a trail from 183 Ridgefield Rd. to cross their properties, but the state would have to allow a crosswalk to traverse the intersection Belden Hill to make that connection safe for pedestrians.

Vanderslice questioned that idea, saying that state would be unlikely to give that permission.  “I think this has a lot of issues, the potential to ever do this. If this is a major component about saying what you want to provide, I’d be a little worried about that,” and adding, “The probability is low.”

Merrill said that the group only needs to show the potential for the project, not definitive plans. “All we need to do is show the state the feasibility that this could get done. That there is a way to get across private property and there is a way potentially to cross at this intersection and get into Wilton Center. Maybe we’ll hit a wall, but at this point it’s just if we wanted to do it and it were possible, could we do it.”

Understanding how much importance the Land Trust was placing on that issue was one reason why Vanderslice said she wanted to see the completed application before giving approval. “If there is a necessity to list the public benefit, I wouldn’t want somebody reading the application to put a lot of weight into this [crosswalk plan] because I think the probability of this happening is very, very, very slight.”

Gaboriault tried to make the case for getting the board’s support that evening, without needing to provide a completed application.

“All we’re looking for is a letter of support. We’re not looking for you to review the application to figure out whether we’re right or wrong. We’re just looking for you to say, ‘We think it’s a good thing for you to apply for this grant, we support that the municipality doesn’t have to spend money to create open space,” he said.

But Vanderslice preferred to have the completed application in hand first. “Don’t you think we should read the application  before we say we support the application?”

Ultimately the selectmen asked for the opportunity to review the application before issuing support.

The BOS would need to do so tonight in order to make the Land Trust’s self-imposed deadline of submitting the forms Jan. 24; the state’s official deadline is Feb. 7. Vanderslice said a draft letter would be ready to be turned around immediately if the selectmen do approve.

The Conservation Commission similarly asked to review the grant application before giving its support, and said it would set up a special meeting if necessary before the grant application deadline, once it had time for such review.

At the last meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission, the commissioners agreed to allow Town Planner Bob Nerney to draft a letter indicating preservation of the property is consistent with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, and if the Commission’s chair, Scott Lawrence, approved the letter, he could sign it and give it to the Land Trust.