In full disclosure, I am an elected member of the Zoning Commission and an appointed member of the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission; however, I am writing this letter as a private citizen.
Over the past few months, there has been an issue concerning property located at 36-1 Buttonball Road. For those who have been following this topic, you know the full details. For those who have not, presenting too much information would be like inside baseball talk so I will do my best to give the Reader’s Digest version.
The property located at 36-1 Buttonball Road was deeded by a generous family to be used for the public to access the navigable waters leading out to the Black Hall and ultimately to the Sound. This property was initially deeded to the state then transferred back to the town approximately two decades ago. Our town’s Open Space Commission, through its predecessor committee, took presumptive control of the property.
Here is the current issue. The Open Space Commission is charged with making and keeping an inventory of all town property that has been identified as open space. 36-1 Buttonball Road was not included on that inventory list and that raises the question of why.
Was it a simple oversight or something else?
The public needs to decide that but there is one last piece of information to this short narrative. An abutting property owner to 36-1 Buttonball Road is a co-chair of the Open Space Commission and whose property would be directly affected by public use of this previously undisclosed waterfront parcel of land. Amanda Blair is a co-chair of the Open Space Commission. She resides next to 36-1 Buttonball Road in a house that is owned by her family trust and she is the trustee. She has a direct interest in maintaining the value of that property as a trustee and for its beneficiaries—her family. This information is all public record.
The public needs to know that there is an ongoing and very active effort to keep the public from using this property, as deeded, by the Open Space Commission. There are three town entities that touch upon the use of this land: Harbor Management Commission, Open Space Commission and Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission. However, Inland Wetlands has absolutely no dog in this fight. A very small section of 36-1 Buttonball Road comes within the 100’ boundary line from fresh water that would trigger that commission’s jurisdiction and ONLY if an application is filed to do some type of work on that property.
So, this issue has become a jurisdictional fight between Open Space and Harbor Management. Open Space is fighting hard, perhaps desperately so, to keep this property from the public even to the extent of a co-chair purchasing “no trespassing” signs. The strongest advocates to keep this public property private are the co-chairs of the Open Space Commission: Amanda Blair and Evan Griswold.
Harbor Management wants to move forward with exploring how best to protect the ecology of the site while allowing public access and use. Harbor Management proposed a course of action that would make an application with DEEP and that state agency would initiate a truly independent environmental impact study to determine what public access would be permitted, if any, while still protecting this fragile environment.
I recently learned that Open Space co-chair Evan Griswold is retaining a scientist in the field of “wetlands and watercourses”. This expert is to be independent according to him.
In fact, the following is from the minutes of the Open Space Commission’s May 16, 2022 meeting:
First Selectman Tim Griswold charged the Commission with conducting an environmental assessment of 36-1 Buttonball Road. Evan Griswold will seek an expert wetlands and waterways scientist to advise the town. The Commission may also seek counsel, as needed, from a soil scientist and surveyor.
This was confirmed by the Weekly Update from the First Selectman dated May 20, 2022, as follows:
The Open Space Commission held a special meeting on Monday, May 16th to discuss the Town’s property at 36-1 Buttonball Road. The Chairs of the Harbor Management Commission and Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission called in to the meeting. At my request, Open Space will arrange for an objective, expert environmental review of the property to determine if river access on the property might cause undue harm to the marshes and wildlife. Once the analysis is complete, the Selectmen, Open Space, Harbor Management, and Wetlands will work on a plan for the property in keeping with the deed restriction.
There are no minutes from any Board of Selectmen meeting that confirms that the Board of Selectmen were aware of this request. If this request was only coming from the first selectman then it should have been an agenda item at a selectmen meeting for the board to vote on and allow public comment. There are many troubling issues with that statement. How does the first selectman authorize an independent commission to hire an expert to provide a report without a Board of Selectmen vote? Out of whose budget will pay for the Open Space’s scientist? Will there be a competitive bid or will the co-chair, Evan Griswold, simply hire on his own whim? Why weren’t the chairs of Harbor Management and Inland Wetlands permitted to be part of a team that chooses an expert? What in the heck is going on here?
My speculation is that there is an end-run scheme to keep the public off 36-1 Buttonball Road. Open Space will retain a hired gun to give the commission a report that says public access should not be allowed because of such and such. This study will not be independent… it will be a done deal. Why do I say it’s a scheme? Because the town leadership has been having meetings with the chairs Open Space, Harbor Management and Inland Wetlands to determine which entity should have stewardship over this property. So, if the jurisdictional question has not yet been answered then why would the first selectman request Open Space to charge ahead with a “study”? Shouldn’t the town first determine what entity has jurisdiction?
Also, there is no plan to do anything with this property. No application has been filed. No plans have been submitted. How can a scientist provide a report on the environmental impact of public use when the scientist doesn’t even know what the use might be? Perhaps, in the end, it might just be a parking lot, some picnic tables and a small raised platform to observe wildlife. Nobody knows anything yet to base such a report nor to even request such a report… at town expense none-the-less.
As a trial lawyer I can say why we call these experts hired guns. They will provide a report and testify to support the conclusions of the person that hired them, and Open Space is the hiring agent.
What we are witnessing here is a fait accompli. The Open Space Commission will use this fake study to keep this property private and for whose benefit? Certainly not for the people of Old Lyme.
Let’s go back to Open Space co-chair Amanda Blair. Here are more minutes from the same meeting:
Co-Chair Amanda Blair read a statement noting her lawyer has advised that she need not recuse herself from matters pertaining to the property. She said she has not posted “no trespassing” signs on the access driveway to the property, but only purchased such signs as a favor to provide to the Black Hall Country Club.
As a lawyer who has represented government entities in the past, I actually spit up my coffee when I read that. She is the abutting landowner of disputed property that is currently under the stewardship of a committee that she is the co-chair of and there is no conflict on her voting on the issue? C’mon man!
Why would Ms. Blair consult a private lawyer on whether she has a conflict of interest when the towns’ boards have available counsel to answer such queries? That seems odd to me. When I practiced law in New Jersey, I was my town’s planning board attorney and that was part of my responsibility in advising my board. The issue of whether a commission member has a conflict of interest with a matter before, or potentially before the commission, should be raised with the commission attorney, or town attorney, and made public. I would routinely put my opinions regarding conflicts of interest on the record at public meetings.
Now the “no trespass” signs that Ms. Blair mentions is also interesting. She claims that she only purchased “as a favor to provide the Black Hall Country Club.” I call Horse Hockey on that statement. Why would one of the region’s most expensive and exclusive golf clubs need Ms. Blair to purchase “no trespassing” signs for their club. I am pretty sure that they have their own maintenance and grounds keepers that could have obtained those signs. The “no trespass” signs were put up on the long driveway that goes from Buttonball Road to BOTH Ms. Blair’s property AND the town property. Those signs were put up to dissuade citizens from going down that road to enjoy the town’s property. But then again, how would town citizens even now that public property was there since the Open Space Committee failed to list it on its property inventory. In hindsight, those signs were overkill to really make sure no one went down that road.
There was some explanation that the Black Hall Country Club did want the signs up to prevent people from dumping on the property.If that were truly happening then it would be a police action and a report could haven been made of illegal dumping so that the area could be checked now and again by our officers on patrol.
I would ask the Board of Selectmen to do three things
- Immediately order the Open Space Commission to cease and desist from hiring an expert to prepare an impact study. That commission has already taken a firm stance and cannot be trusted to hire someone that is neutral. Also, the Board of Selectmen has not decided which town entity has stewardship over this property so why is the Open Space Commission taking on this task for property it kept off its own inventory list.
- The board should declare that the Harbor Management Commission has stewardship over this property. The fact that the Open Space Commission has mismanaged this property for two decades by keeping it hidden from the public should disqualify that entity from having anything further to do with this property. In my opinion, that commission has demonstrated bad faith by hiding this public asset. The actions of a co-chair have been particularly egregious and a violation of her public oath
- The board should refer the activities of the Open Space Commission’s co-chairs to the town Ethics Commission. The question for investigation would be to what extent did town officials use their public positions to benefit the private property or concerns of its board members. Co-chair Amanda Blair is an abutting property owner, through a trust, whose property is directly affected, and co-chair Evan Griswold has been outspoken about keeping the public off of this town owned property.
Old Lyme, CT