Most of the people attending the standing-room-only Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday night (Sept. 23) were pretty frustrated, but it wasn’t because of a shortage of seats. Instead, town officials and residents alike were mostly unified in their exasperation with the new owners of Millstone Farm.
Wilton’s environmental affairs director Mike Conklin set the scene in his presentation to the BOS members, with a detailed report illustrating the town’s experience trying to enforce the Conservation Restriction (CR) has been in effect on the 71-acre property at 180 Millstone Rd. since 2001. He showed numerous photos of locations on the farm illustrating what he said have been violations to that CR as well as evidence that the owners have not taken steps to follow what the town has asked for in a more recently agreed upon amendment to that CR. [see photos at the end of this article]
Conservation Restriction History and Amendment
The original CR was created in 2001 when the Town of Wilton paid then-property owner Tony Grassi $2.2 million for the development rights to the property, attaching a restriction to the deed to limit what can be done with the property “in the spirit of conservation,” as Conklin explained.
A provision of the CR allowed public access to a certain portion of the property, namely to a trail that crosses the farm. The owners that followed Grassi in ensuing years didn’t always hew to the spirit of the CR–as Conklin explained some things were constructed during their ownership that weren’t in compliance and the trail was not well maintained nor public access granted.
When the current owners Volckert and Eliane van Reesema (under the name Millstone Property Holdings), purchased the farm in 2017, they approached the town and the Wilton Land Conservation Trust to amend the restriction. That amendment would allow several things: modify the trail to move it further from the residence; add a new septic system; get permission to erect a hoop house; and build an indoor riding ring and barn.
In 2018, town officials–including first selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, town planner Bob Nerney and Conklin, with the help of the Conservation Commission and town counsel Ira Bloom–began negotiating the amendment and instructed the owners to bring the property into compliance on several fronts. Vanderslice told the BOS Monday night that town officials negotiated a 40% reduction in the size of the riding ring and barn from what the owners originally wanted (from 25,000 sq. ft. to 14,000 sq. ft.). The owners were permitted to build a hoop house (a type of green house) to ensure that they did not abandon all farming operations (town regulations prohibit both a barn and hoop house on the same parcel). “We wanted the farm to stay,” Vanderslice explained.
The town held several meetings with the owners and their representatives; the BOS members conducted a site visit and ultimately agreed in January 2018 on the amendment. Under that agreement, the town and the owners would need to come to a mutually agreed-upon alternate location for the trail as well as a mutually agreed-upon professional trail builder on a trail that would be open to the public. If that didn’t happen by May 2018, then the requirement would revert back to the original trail from the original CR.
Even with an extension of the deadline that was granted, the deadline wasn’t met until the fall of 2018, when Millstone contacted the town to inspect and grant approval on a trail it built. However, it was a trail they built, says Conklin, without any input from the town on placement or builder–which went against what town officials had specifically asked for in discussions about the amendment.
Blocked Trail, Noncompliance and Mixed Messages
As part of the amendment agreement, town officials were supposed to participate in the trail modification.
“When they met with us, they had their idea of where they wanted the trail; they were supposed to meet with us and jointly work on this. We didn’t hear from them again. We did not participate in the location, or the planning or any construction that has occurred. They did it without our participation,” Vanderslice told the BOS.
[Complicating factors is that Millstone Farm owners have also been in disagreement with the town over land usage issues. Last spring and summer, there were several meetings at the Planning & Zoning Commission for an application submitted by Millstone Farm to introduce agritourism ordinance. During the public hearing portion of those meetings, dozens of neighbors spoke in opposition, with complaints about loud, unauthorized events held at the farm and the impact that construction was having on the neighborhood. Along those lines, GOOD Morning Wilton recently reported on a difference of opinion between the town and Millstone Farm regarding a temporary permit for a special event planned for last Friday, Sept. 20 at the property. Vanderslice said she wanted to keep Monday night’s discussion to just the CR issues.]
In April 2019, Conklin walked the trails on the Millstone property multiple times to inspect them, and was accompanied by Frank Simone, a member of the Conservation Commission. Conklin showed numerous photos taken on his walks of examples he said were in violation of the CR. [see photos below]
Among them were obstacles placed on the existing trail where the public has a legal right to pass; those obstacles included either logs or trees that had been placed across the trail and fencing. “Historically we were able to walk into that meadow–that fence prohibited that,” he explained.
Where new trail was created, Conklin showed that it had been done so in a way that he said was “inadequate.”
Among the pictures he showed was one of a bridge he said had been built across wetlands. “Typically when my department maintains our town parks and open spaces, we would utilize a bridge that’s 3-ft wide; this one is not 3-ft. wide. The trail person they hired created this without including us in the discussion. A 10-year-old would have a great time with this, a grandparent walking with a 5-year old probably would be frustrated.”
He also pointed to stepping stones placed across a stream as “a dangerous situation.” “When you’re building a new trail that’s the time to address things like this.”
Conklin said that there are a number of items of the conservation restriction that still “needed work or attention.”
“They didn’t build a parking area. There’s a laundry list of things,” he added. At a later point, he noted that in one area of the trail an electrified fence had been installed right nearby.
In addition, the new trail has been pushed toward the outer sections of the property, in many places close to the roads along the perimeter. The result is that it no longer provides access to much of the natural beauty and topography of one of the most beautiful open spaces in Wilton–access the town had guaranteed with its $2.2 million CR purchase.
“Every time that I go back out there, there seems to be a new violation or issue that I observe. They have a lot of moving pieces–there’s many different contractors working on the property; they have a team of attorneys that understand the agreement and restriction to help counsel them, but every time I go out there there are new issues,” Conklin said.
He noted a pattern of violations and corrections, and said the owners are giving “mixed messages.”
“It’s been two years, we’re working on it. As we work on it there are new violations to continue. What I would love–probably everyone would–that if they just stuck by the guideline I have to use, then everybody would be in compliance and we’d be fine.”
Simone agreed, saying that the town “had worked so hard on the agreement. “Only one or two photos of the 20, 30, 40 that he took, to quote this as a professionally built trail, when you look at the NRVT and the standards they put in, I don’t think it reflects what they’ve done at this point.”
Vanderslice characterized what she thought the current owners’s perspective is on the work that’s been done.
“Based on my correspondence, they feel this is a fait accompli. I think they feel that what they’ve done is a good job and a good product,” she said.
Resident Frustration–and Town Resolve: “Committed to Gain Compliance”
During public comment, multiple neighboring residents spoke of their shared frustration.
“The spirit of the original CR agreement is not being followed by them. Over and over again in that document it talks about the importance of open space and vistas, that’s why the town put over $2 million toward it. When you go on that walk or drive by, those vistas are often obstructed, and it’s not the beautiful place that we put our money toward,” said Sherri McReynolds.
Resident Ceci Maher recounted how she spent several years visiting the property when it was originally owned by the Grassi family.
“It’s a gorgeous piece of property. When the Grassis sold it to the town, I was 110% behind it, because the thought of this being maintained as an open space was huge. I have not felt as though I could step foot on this property and use it in the way it was bought by the town.I would love to see it opened up again and being able to use it. We use other areas in town for walking and open space, but I’ve not been able to go on this space for years,” Maher said.
Vanderslice noted that she recently spoke with Tony Grassi to review the original intent of the CR.
“He said the primary focus in 2001 was to prevent this [property] from being developed for homes. The secondary focus was to have this trail. The property has changed, and some of that was [the current owners’] right. But we still have that right to public access. I was like you, I felt it was important to keep the trail in the center [of the property].”
Vanderslice reiterated that the BOS needs to decide what direction to now pursue: to push the owners to bring the new trail into an acceptable state or revert back to the original trail and force their compliance on making that trail passable and acceptable for public use.
Either way, she assured the public the town was committed “using every remedy” to get compliance.
“We are committed to ensuring that our zoning regulations and our conservation agreement are honored. There’s a process with a zoning violation, there’s a notification of a violation then if it isn’t cured, you go to cease and desist. And if under the cease and desist it isn’t cured, now you’re talking about a legal action. But we are committed to doing what we have to do to gain compliance at this property.”
Conservation commissioner Simone urged the selectmen to push the owners for accountability.
“Going forward we ought to engage our town counsel aggressively, because I believe we have situations where we are looking at injunctive, cease and desist, breach of contract that we negotiated so seriously, and violations of town ordinances,” Simone said.
Vanderslice said this has been “time consuming,” and expressed her own frustration.
“I don’t think there’s a single thing since I’ve become first selectwoman that I’ve spent as much time on as this. The amount of hours that went into before it even came to the BOS, it has been probably one of the most time consuming things. When you have those conversations, none of us thought a fence was going to come up on those views we talked about for hours. We talked about that view, that you could still have these vistas, and now there’s a fence there,” she said, raising her arms with a shrug in frustration.
Neighbor John McReynolds was more direct: “We watched violation after violation, they always got permit after the fact,” he said, adding, “We don’t trust this family.”
Greg Hefner had a similar opinion: “These are people who work thinking it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Once things are built it makes it much more difficult to change.”
Vigilance and resolve were recommended by other neighbors as well, including Scott Williams. “It sounds like we’re dealing with people used to getting what they want. Your vigilance, patience and endurance to get it to the right place to make sure they’re in compliance. If they’re in compliance, you have no argument, but it doesn’t strike me that they like the compliance game.”
Susan DiLoreto, the chair of the Conservation Commission, said the outcome has an impact on all other conservation restriction agreements as well.
“These CR color the flavor of Wilton, and our residents value them–and pay a lot of money for them. So you have to keep in mind, you allow one CR to erode it opens the door and puts all our other ones at risk, so it’s important to be vocal and diligent in keeping this one in place.”
Vanderslice said she hoped to have more information at the next BOS meeting in two weeks.