Wednesday, the State Bond commission approved an additional $5 million for the acquisition of open space and watershed land, providing the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection with a total of $11 million to distribute in grants to the second largest pool of applicants to date.
The Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition grant program received 24 separate applications in its 2019 round of applications, in total requesting requesting considerably more than the usual $5 to $6 million in funding.
“Our administration has set high goals to mitigate the effects of climate change and implement policies that better preserve our air, water, and natural resources,” said Governor Ned Lamont in a press release. “This program is an important component of preserving some of the best and most beautiful land in the world, and by partnering with our municipalities and nonprofits we can ensure that these valuable resources are preserved in perpetuity for generations to come.”
But with the 2020 round of grants not yet announced, the status of the coming year’s funding remains in doubt.
“Since 2012 there was a commitment on the part of the Malloy administration to offer these grants consistently every year,” said Amy Patterson, the Executive Director of Connecticut’s Land Conservation Council. “It is unusual that we haven’t heard of the next round, but since there was a shortfall in the current grant round the DEEP likely wanted to wait.”
The additional $5 million will allow DEEP to fund more projects from the current applicants, and help the state to meet its goal of setting aside 21 percent of land in Connecticut as open space by 2023.
“It’s part of the state green plan, 21 percent of the land will be held as open space with 10 percent held by the state and 11 percent by our partners,” said Graham Stevens, director of the Open Space Land Acquisition and Management program at DEEP.
Currently the state has met just 76 percent of that 21 percent goal, or 265,000 acres, and it remains unclear how much progress municipalities and nonprofits have made toward the goal of 11 percent.
“The state has a good grasp on what they own, but we are not as sure how much municipalities and non-profits own,” Stevens said. “In this next green plan we are being more explicit on what we are looking for, sharpening our lens on climate mitigation and being strategic in our preservation. Previously, we valued open space for open space, but now we are trying to be more detailed on what our top priorities are when it comes to open space.”
This year in addition to climate change and wildlife preservation, Stevens said recreation is a top priority for the Lamont administration.
The additional funding came at the urging of many in the land conservation community across the state. The program has been the backbone of land conservation efforts, Patterson said, and has provided consistent, reliable funding for the 115 land trusts in Connecticut and for municipal open space commissions.
In total, $125 million has been granted to preserve more than 36,000 acres in 139 towns across the state. Only twice, in 2008 and 2011, has the state failed to fund grants since the program began in 1998.
“I can’t stress enough how incredibly disruptive it is to not have consistent, regular grant rounds. Predictability of funding is so important with these organizations when they are negotiating land sales,” Patterson said. “If there is insecurity about a funding source the negotiations can become even more difficult or stretch on for longer.”
According to Stevens, the delay in the 2020 grant round announcement is in part due to the overwhelming number of applications for 2019.
“This grant request was far in excess of the usual, so we are taking a little bit of extra time,” Stevens said. “We need to talk with our partner, the Open Space Review Board, about timing of grant rounds. We don’t want to run into a repeated situation where we don’t know the funds we will have.”
Open space projects in the region
Of the 24 applicants for the 2019 round of grant funding, several are from southeastern Connecticut including a 55-acre wooded uplands acquisition by the Old Saybrook Land Trust.
“The parcel is next to town and state open space properties and if successful would become permanently protected as open space, adding greatly to the town’s woodland resources,” said Senator and First Selectman of Essex Norm Needleman. “We owe it to ourselves to do whatever we can to protect our natural resources. I’m thankful to the Governor and the Bond Commission for taking this step and continuing the tradition of environmental consciousness Connecticut is known for.”
The Avalonia Land Conservancy has applied for two grants for proposed projects: one in Montville for 668 acres and one in Ledyard for 100 acres.The Conservancy has received nine Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition grants since the program began.
“In the past we’ve had a real good run with roughly $1 million worth of projects funded by the open space grant program,” said Dennis Main, the president of the Conservancy. “This is pretty much our go-to fund for 65-75 percent of each project.”
According to Main, both projects have “tremendous support” from the towns and meet many of DEEP’s criteria for receiving grant funding: climate mitigation, wildlife preservation and opportunities for recreation.
The project in Ledyard connects to an existing preserve, doubling it in size if the purchase is approved.
“These are two really super opportunities and we are hopeful,” Main said. “However, you could have the best possible project, but depending on how you rank you might not get the funds you want.”