EAST LYME — The owners of the East Lyme Driving Range are scrambling to respond to a notice to vacate by Nov. 30 due to the state’s land acquisition for improvements to the I-95 interchange at Exit 74 that will take a portion of the property.
Bill and Lavinia Simons, who have leased the driving range, located at 294-2 Flanders Road, for six years said they had received the notice on Oct. 28 from the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
“The taking is of 6 to 10 acres of the 30-ish acre site,” said Bill Simons, on Wednesday morning as the wind whipped across the 28.56-acre parcel where he had worked an additional four years before becoming the business owner and operator. The property has been a driving range since 1960.
Simons said he has a year-to-year lease for the range with right of first refusal from the owners of Two Ninety-Six Flanders LLC, who also own the adjacent parcel at 300 Flanders Road where a True Value Home Center is located.
Kenneth Decker, a representative of the Division of Rights of Way for the state, met with the Simons on Wednesday morning at the range to talk about the acquisition process for the $142 million project that is expected to begin in 2023.
Decker explained that an offer had been sent to the owner of the property but could not divulge numbers nor the exact timing.
“It’s still between us and the attorney and the property owner and I don’t want something to be said that’s not correct,” said Decker. “They’re negotiating right now. But the property will be acquired.”
Decker said that even if the agreement is appealed, the state will proceed with taking the property.
“There is a due date on this file. If we can’t come to an agreement within a reasonable amount of time, we’ll take it by eminent domain, and they have a right to appeal just like everybody else,” he said. “It will be acquired by the end of the year — either by negotiated agreement or eminent domain.”
Lavinia Simons told Decker that the business bought $18,000 of new equipment this year, including a new “picker” and a large mower. She asked for more time to sell it, preferably in the spring.
“The uncertainty on our own part is what needs to be removed, what needs to be sold, or are we going to store it,” she said.
She added that the family had a wedding coming up right before Christmas, making it more difficult to shut down the range quickly.
“Would we have extended time to sell 25,000 golf balls that we’re not going to give away?” she asked. “We invested all this money this year for next year.”
“We were planning ahead. We’d like to have that time after Jan. 1 to get back that money, to sell equipment,” said Bill Simons.
Decker said the state will have title by the time the Simons would usually open the range in the spring.
He told the Simons that the state will offer relocation money but it will not be paid until they have vacated the premises and all equipment and hazardous materials have been removed.
“The offer has already been made to the owners. The reason why we’re not allowed to come to you first is what if you decide not to pay your rate to the landlord because you know we’re coming — that’s not fair so that we don’t do that,” he said. “Every landlord is always concerned about that.”
Simons said he always pays his rent for the year in September.
“I’m sure that factored into their decision not to let me know an offer had been laid out,” he said.
Decker said Simons was still under obligation to the lease agreement with the owners.
“We’re here to say here’s the deal — the state isn’t going to get involved in any lease agreements or potential lease agreements. I told you what the state’s intention is — we’re not going to sign a lease with you and we’re not going to do an occupancy agreement with you because we need you out— you’re no different from any of the other businesses, unfortunately,” Decker said.
After more discussion, Decker relented, saying the state was “not unreasonable.” He agreed to draw up a rental agreement with the state so that the Simons could have more time to sell their equipment.
“Even if you’re not running your business, if you still store stuff on this property, you have to pay use and occupancy… you’re a tenant, so you’ll have to pay us,” Decker said.
Bill Simons pointed out that the gas station at 262 Flanders Road was still operating after the state acquired the property for the Exit 74 project.
Decker said that the driving range was different because it shut down operations after Oct. 31.
“[The gas station] hasn’t shut down but they’re out after Dec. 31,” Decker said.
Lavinia Simons told CT Examiner that the range has been a longtime gathering place in the community and will be missed.
“This is a social center, the boys club, especially for the retired older guys — this is where they meet and mingle and get away from their wives,” she laughed. “We have guys who are here every day.”
She said the range has hosted Waterford and East Lyme High Schools student golf teams every Spring and hired a number of area teenagers for their first summer jobs.
“We have people of all ages, my favorite are the little kids,” she said. “There are people who come here with their kids and their grandkids. It’s been 60 years that’s this has been a driving range and before that it was a cow pasture,” she said.