Semi-rural Wilton faces a self-defining choice this week, as the question of whether or not to purchase development rights on a large, 35-acre open space in town is put to residents.
Tuesday evening, Nov. 19, there will be a Special Town Meeting to discuss a proposed $2.2 million bonded purchase by the town of a conservation easement on land at the corner of Seeley and Cannon Rds. The land, commonly known as the Keiser Property, is owned by the Keiser family, and the family’s estate has put the parcel up for sale.
The meeting will be held at the Clune Center at Wilton High School, starting Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m.. Following the meeting, residents will be able to vote on whether or not to approve the expenditure by the town. There will be a second opportunity to cast a vote on Saturday, Nov. 23, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. at the Clune Center.
The town is not trying to purchase the land; it is only hoping to purchase the easement rights. The easement will prevent whomever eventually purchases the land from doing any kind of building or development on 35 acres of the 39.5 acre parcel. (The family will retain rights to sell four acres for residential development). It also will allow certain limited access for the public to the land, including access to trails and 1,000 feet of Norwalk River riverfront.
Patricia Sesto, Wilton’s director of environmental affairs, has been working on this project for 10 years. She wants Wilton residents to understand the importance of attending the meeting. “We need a quorum–we have to have 50 people show up to have a meeting. It sounds like a small number, but if people get complacent or if people assume everyone is favorable, then we can come up short just because people took it for granted,” Sesto explained.
If there is no quorum, there can be no town meeting or vote, and Sesto said rescheduling it would be very difficult, if not unlikely. “The town would need to take out new public notices in the paper, there’s certain timing proscribed with it, it’s not just doing it next Tuesday instead.”
Sesto substantiated the importance of the town acquiring the easement rights on this property. “Of all the open space pieces, this meets the town’s needs in so many fronts. It has ecological importance, in protecting the river–there’s 1,000 feet of river that we get access to and get to protect. I don’t know where we’d have another opportunity in town to have direct protection. If nothing else, it’s just a beautiful piece of property, it’s amazing to see.”
Those opposed to the easement purchase have expressed concern that the town should not be making such a significant expenditure at a time when budgets are so tight. Sesto countered that it actually makes good financial sense to make this kind of investment now.
“Right now is actually a really good time. While we’re technically not buying real estate–we’re buying an easement, but it’s still within the workings of the real estate market–10 years ago the value of this easement was $4.5 million, and we were prepared to take it to the public at that time.” Sesto explained that the down didn’t proceed at that time because of personal reasons within the Keiser family.
She added, “The same amount of land, we are now able to get at $2.5 million. The Wilton Land Conservation Trust is providing $300,000 to take it down to $2.2 million. And interest rates are really good. Like the stock market, you want to buy low, and this is our opportunity to buy low.”
Because the Keiser estate is eager to divest themselves of the property, Sesto said there’s a certain urgency to getting the town to approve the proposal. “If we don’t do it now, we don’t ever do it. We lose this chance and that land will be gone. The Keisers have a 13-lot subdivision plan all laid out. They know the development potential of that property. It’s not a farce, this is real.”
Indeed, the Keiser’s know the potential exists to make a lot more money from the sale of the property to developers, but they are willing to give up a much larger profit and are eager to work with the town instead. The family has historically been involved in land conservation efforts in Wilton. Sesto acknowledged the generosity of the family in pursuing the deal with the town.
“This property could yield 13 beautiful 2-acre lots. it’s probably easier to sell 13 lots than it is to sell one big 39-acre piece with an easement on it. You’ve narrowed down your market considerable. They are will to take that on–they love the land too.”