MIDDLETOWN — The city’s efforts to preserve open space took a step forward on Monday as the Common Council approved buying 40 acres that could be used to expand walking trails at Smith Park and will preserve a patch of farmland nearly surrounded by houses.
The council voted unanimously to allow the city to use $750,000 of bond funds voters approved in 2019 to buy 39.7 acres of land in the Westfield area.
Half of the property is wooded and faces the wooded section of Smith park, while the half of the property facing East Street is open space that has been cleared for farming. The property is owned by the family of Connecticut Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz.
“It was our dad’s wish before he passed away at age 96 to see this preserved as open space,” Bysiewicz said in a statement to CT Examiner. “There are nine family members who are co-owners of the property who are united in their desire to see this preserved as open space for Middletown residents to enjoy for years to come.”
City Planner Marek Kozikowski said the wooded area will be accessible to the public, and the city will be looking at expanding the trail network at the 80-acre Smith Park to connect it to the nearby neighborhoods. The city intends to lease the cleared 20 acres of farmland on the property for farming, Kozikowski said.
The timeline for adding trails remains fluid, and the city will be creating an Open Space Stewardship Plan soon that could include a concept for new trail locations, Kozikowski said. The city attorney and representatives of the property owners still need to work out the legal aspects of the sale and close it, Kozikowski said.
This is the city’s second purchase using the 2019 open space bond. Last year, it agreed to buy 32.5 acres of land off of South Main from the Livingston Estate for $665,000. That land is also meant for open space and farming, Kozikowski said.
“The city has a history of doing some really innovative and creative agriculture projects,” Mayor Ben Florsheim said in his regular Facebook Live address before the Monday council meeting. “We have city land that is leased to a local farm that provides community supported agriculture to residents and to our schools. We want to continue building on that model, so that’s a potential use for this site in the future.”
A portion of the Livingston property is adjacent to Dooley Pond, and potentially could improve public access to the pond. The city also hopes to make some of the land available for active farming — a use that is mentioned as a goal in the city’s new plan of conservation and development, Kozikowski said.
The city is working towards acquiring another 8 acres of land adjacent to Smith Park as a donation to the town.
The city is also working to acquire more open space. Those purchases are prioritized based on a scoring system developed by the city’s Commission on Conservation and Agriculture.
Florsheim that the criteria are based on whether the land is contiguous with or adjacent to existing open space, and how high the risk is that the property will be developed.
“We’re excited to preserve that property, and to prevent overdeveloping from happening on that site, and have some creative uses for it in the future,” Florsheim told his Facebook audience.
Middletown voters overwhelmingly approved the $5 million open space bond in 2019. It is Middletown’s fourth open space bond since voters approved the first in 1989 – a $5 million package that allowed the city to buy and preserve 209 acres.
The city used $11 million to preserve over 1,000 acres of open space over the first three open space bonds. Including the recent purchase, the city has used about $12.4 million in open space bond funds to buy nearly 1,160 acres of open space since 1989.
The city appraised the properties at $650,000, and the owners had an independent appraisal that valued them at $960,000. The sides settled on a price of $750,000 to bridge the gap and account for a new driveway that will need to be built. The city’s finance committee approved an appropriation of that amount last week.