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Town to Negotiate Housing Proposal for Country Club, Reject Conservation Easement

Town to Negotiate Housing Proposal for Country Club, Reject Conservation Easement

The Board of Selectmen, in a reversal of its position just a month earlier to pause any action on the use of the former Country Club of Woodbridge, on January 12 voted along party lines to move forward with negotiations for a large housing development called Arbor Haven.

This does not mean that the officials involved in the negotiations are selling the parcel.  Rather, they are negotiating the terms they would present to voters in a referendum.  The ultimate decision lies with the voters of the town.

The board’s vote came after discussion of the matter in executive session.  It authorizes First Selectman Beth Heller, Finance Director Anthony Genovese and Town Counsel Jerry Weiner to “begin discussion with Arbor Haven in order to finalize purchase price, amount of acreage, open space, mix and amount of residential units, and any other terms and conditions of the offer.”  The motion also states clearly that the negotiation is in anticipation of a possible referendum whereby voters will decide whether or not to sell the property.”

The vote was 4:2, with Republican Selectmen David Lober and David Vogel voting against.

In tandem with the vote on the housing development, they also rejected an offer from the Woodbridge Land Trust and the Park Association to protect the land as open space with a conservation easement on some 140 acres of the 153-acre property.  The two groups had offered to pay the town $250,000 to compensate for the restriction.  They excluded about 10 acres around the former clubhouse, in the hopes that it could be used as a banquet hall or similar commercial venture.

When asked what brought on the change in direction, First Selectman Beth Heller wrote in an email that she had received many calls and emails from residents who are in favor of this proposal and want to vote on this matter.  “I believe having a referendum is the responsible thing to do, and let the voters decide,” she wrote.

The Conservation Commission in December had advised the Board of Selectmen of its opposition to large-scale development on the 150-acre property.  In a memo dated November 18, 2021, it laid out in detail why it thought the proposal was a bad idea.

First and foremost, the conservationists point out that their mission is to “protect and actively manage the town’s natural resources,” as it reads on the town’s website; and “developing the largest piece of undeveloped property in town for high density housing is contrary to our charter.”  The property contains wetlands, endangered species and extensive other wildlife that should be protected.

The memo also points out that the master plan for the Woodbridge Greenway — a trail system that connects open spaces and links into a regional trail system — will surround the town.  “The country club property is a missing link in our Greenway system that is critical in linking other established contiguous Greenway spaces in Woodbridge, Orange and New Haven and should be protected,” the authors wrote.

In addition to the environmental impact of the project, the memo also brings up some of the more controversial aspects of the project.  For instance, opponents have taken to referring to the property as the “Roger Sherman Farm” to stress its historic significance, and, by extension, prevent development.

Although it is true that Roger Sherman — one of the founders of the United States — owned property in that area, he never actually lived there, according to Mary Dean, a history buff.  Similarly, Kathy Hunter, a fellow member of the Woodbridge Housing Opportunity Study group pointed out that the historic significance with regard to the Woodbridge Country Club is that it was founded as a golf club for people of Jewish faith, who often were excluded from other area clubs.  “That speaks to creating housing opportunity for everybody,” she said.

The Conservation memo, which was written by four board members, also disputes the developers’ assertions regarding potential tax income for the town.  At $625,000 for a two-bedroom, age-restricted, attached home, the projected sales prices are too high, they claim, calling into question the tax revenue that can be expected.  The projected cost for schooling of additional school-age children moving into town are too low, the authors of the memo contend, coming to the conclusion that “this proposal only financially benefits the developer and not town residents.”

When asked about these points, the first selectman responded by saying she was planning to take the comments made back to the developers, so as to refine the proposal.  In addition to the points made by the Conservation Commission, some 18 residents submitted letters in support of their position.

They speak of the loss of clean air and water and diminished quality of life.  Many also bring up studies that speak to the economic benefit of conservation.

One neighbor, Abby Santamaria, wrote that for her and her family, as well as many neighbors, “the place is a sanctuary, and we can’t imagine living here with it gone.”

By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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