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Another Deadline Approaches for Deer Lake

by Clark Judge

(April 26, 2022) — Wherever you go in town – Da Vinci Pizza, Copper Skillet, the Killingworth Transfer Station – the question is always the same … and, no, it’s not what’s wrong with the Red Sox?

“What’s going on with Deer Lake?” people ask.

What’s going on is the 255-acre Boy Scouts Reservation is scheduled to be sold, with Sunday, May 1, the deadline for offers. There are two bidders – Fortitude Capital LLC, a private developer whose CEO is Margaret Streicker, and Pathfinders, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting Deer Lake as green space.

The property’s owner, the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boys Scouts of America, was scheduled to make a decision by March 31. But that deadline was postponed a month after Connecticut Attorney General William Tong intervened due, as a statement from his office read, “to the pending inquiry into the property.” Since then, Killingworth’s Board of Selectmen, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal have pledged their support for preserving the property as open space. But beyond that?

Crickets.

So what’s going on with Deer Lake? Keep reading.

Q: Where do things stand now?

A: It’s a two-horse race to the finish: Fortitude Capital LLC vs. Pathfinders. Fortitude Capital is the frontrunner, with its $4.625-million bid accepted by the Connecticut Yankee Council. Pathfinders’ offer of $4.3 million on March 30 was rejected, forcing the group to seek more in donations and/or loans. The goal now, said Pathfinders chairman Ted Langevin in a recent Facebook post, is $5 million. It hasn’t been reached. “This is going to be a stressful week,” said one conservation director. “In my mind, it’s make-or-break time.”

Q: Wait a minute. Why $5 million?

A: Good question. After the Boys Scouts conditionally accepted Fortitude Capital’s bid on Feb. 17, they said they would consider “superior offers.” But then the Connecticut Yankee Council’s realtor changed the terms last month when the Council rejected Pathfinders’ bid. He said the price for Pathfinders to buy the Deer Lake property must be more than “superior.” It would be pushed to $5 million.

Q: Why?

A: According to those close to the situation, it’s a “penalty” for breaking the deal with Fortitude Capital.

Q: This sounds like a bidding war … with one side doing all the bidding.

A: Bingo. Fortitude Capital’s offer has not changed. That’s because its letter of intent was accepted. Pathfinders’ bid, however, must increase substantially. That’s why the group is immersed in last-minute fundraising to try to reach its goal, and it’s making progress. At last count, there were over 630 individual donors from 25 states and three countries (U.S., Canada and Denmark), while the Save Deer Lake Facebook page was up to 2,000 followers. Interest is so widespread that the story has been carried by the Washington Post, Associated Press, USA Today and National Public Radio and recently appeared in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat … as in Santa Rosa, California, located north of San Francisco.

Q: How real is the prospect of development here?

A: Ah, another good question. Rumors persist that Streicker’s intention is to build on the property, with high-density housing mentioned, but real-estate agents insist the property is not conducive to development – starting with a road to access it.  They also believe the cost would be prohibitive. Fortitude Capital initially bid $3.7 million for the property, then upped it to $4.625 million in February when no other party but the Trust for Public Land (TPL) – a nonprofit that offered $2.4 million – was involved. Which means no other developer was interested. That has cynics convinced there’s another motive here, and that’s to drive the price skyward. If conservation activists are determined to save the property, they argue, why wouldn’t the Scouts see how much they’re willing to pay? It’s not an unreasonable idea. “You never reveal the sale and buyer,” said one local real-estate agent, “until you close. There’s something very fishy about this.” Furthermore, when contacted last September – shortly after Deer Lake was for sale and before appraisals were made — Council CEO Mark Kraus mentioned the property’s worth at $5.2 million. So did the realtor in a subsequent e-mail before listing it at $5.25 million. With terms of the sale now changed, the price for Pathfinders is in that neighborhood. “They keep moving the goal posts,” said one conservation director, who likened the move to ransom. “This is like a game of poker, waiting for someone to blink.” But what if those skeptics are wrong? That’s why Pathfinders continues to work on funding. It’s not willing to gamble. It wants to make certain Deer Lake is preserved in perpetuity as open space. As one political supporter said, the intrinsic value of Deer Lake transcends dollars and cents. Or, as Paul Simon once wrote, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

Q: Can you give an example of that “intrinsic value?”

A: The Nature Conservancy can. It identifies Deer Lake as one of the areas in the Northeast corridor “most resilient” to climate change. With a series of colored maps that appear on its Resilient and Connected Network (Conservation Gateway – Home), TNC lists the region as one of the most valuable sites near the coastline between New York City and Boston. “Resilient lands not only benefit plants and animals,” said Sarah Pellegrino, the Land Protection and Strategies Manager for the Connecticut Nature Conservancy, “they ensure clean air and water, maximize benefits of forests and wetlands for storing carbon in plants and soils, protect communities from extreme storms and flooding and provide open green spaces. Resilient lands are key to a future where people and nature thrive.”

Q: What impact does a possible sale of the Scout Reservation have on the Deer Lake summer youth camp?

A: For the immediate future, none. In January, Pathfinders negotiated a one-year lease with the Connecticut Yankee Council for the use of the camp for three months (June-August), and all but one session is full. So its future is guaranteed for 2022. The future of the entire property, however, is not. If Pathfinders were to buy the Scout Reservation it would continue the summer youth camp as it is today. If its bid is rejected, Streicker has said she would be willing to lease the camp for the next three years. That decision would be up to the Pathfinders Board of Directors.

Q: What is going on with the state Attorney General?

A: Uncertain. Those in touch with Tong’s office said they’ve been told that an investigation is continuing. Nothing more. The office has been in contact with Langevin, with the Pathfinders chairman checking in as recently as last Thursday.

Q: What could he be looking at?

A: A couple of things. First, Streicker’s involvement. She’s on the Council’s Board of Directors that accepted a deal … from her firm. She insists she recused herself, but it does raise the question of a conflict of interest. Another possibility is that penalty for breaking the Streicker deal. If the letter of intent is non-binding, said one realtor, there is no deal. There could, however, be a contingency written into it, she warned. But, she asked, if the letter of intent is binding, how can a deal be accepted when the deadline is May 1? It may left to the DOJ to determine if irregularities exist. Then there’s the Richard English Bird Sanctuary at Deer Lake. English, an ornithologist who supported the study and protection of birds, has a portion of land at Deer Lake named after him “for his contribution to preserving the area’s natural habitat.” Those words are from the 2012 winter edition of The Scouter, the Connecticut Yankee Council’s official newsletter. Following English’s death in 2011, the Richard L. English Fund was established as a permanent endowment that made a $20-million bequest to the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, the largest in that group’s history. Ten percent of that donation, or $2 million, was to the Connecticut Yankee Council. It receives $100,000 per annum. A lawsuit was filed Monday against the Council in Middlesex Superior Court by a Deer Lake supporter, charging that the Bird Sanctuary must be protected.

Q: There’s talk about a two-pronged approach involving Pathfinders and the state and/or Killingworth. What is the likelihood of that happening?

A: Nothing will happen by the May 1 deadline. If there’s involvement, it would happen at the back end of a Pathfinders deal. Remember what Gov. Lamont said earlier this month: “We’re not the piggy bank. I like going in alongside other people.” Pathfinders would be the “other people.” How? If the Connecticut Yankee Council agreed to a sale, Pathfinders could seek additional funding through a bifurcated approach to the property’s acquisition. According to that plan, Pathfinders would keep nearly half for its summer youth camp (with 120-130 acres mentioned) and sell the remainder to the state or town to be preserved as open space. In fact, that’s been the subject of recent committee meetings involving Killingworth First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski and representatives from TPL, Save the Sound and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), as well as State Senator Christine Cohen and State Representative Christine Goupil. With the state legislative session ending May 4, Cohen and Goupil have been preoccupied, while DEEP has indicated its moral – but not financial – support. That leaves Killingworth. For the town to respond, Gorski would first have to call a public meeting, then give 30-days’ notice for a referendum. “But nothing would happen before June or July at the earliest,” she said.

Q: Why would Pathfinders need additional funding?

A: To reimburse those who made loans to reach Pathfinders’ goal. In a Facebook post Monday, Langevin said that Pathfinders may have to carry $2 million in loans to the table.

Q: What are the most available sources of funding?

A: The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a federal grant that could flow through DEEP. The Connecticut Bond Commission is another resource, as are a handful of conservation grants. But they would be available later, not sooner – and only if Pathfinders’ bid was accepted. “It would be very difficult to move on anything prior to May 1,” said Cohen. “Given the current deadline and landscape presented to the state, it is nearly impossible. But if the state can help in any way to acquire a portion that’s mutually beneficial to Pathfinders and other interests, we’d certainly be interested.” Though the legislative session ends in two weeks, the Bond Commission is not bound by its timetable. It technically is scheduled to convene monthly, but meetings are sporadic. In the meantime, there’s talk of seeking Killingworth’s interest in a conservation easement, but, again, that’s only if Pathfinders acquires the property. Plus, that decision is not up to Pathfinders. It’s up to a vote of Killingworth citizens … if, in fact, one were taken.

Q: Is the Trust for Public Land still involved?

A: Yes and no. Handcuffed by fair-market value, it bowed out of negotiations after its $2.4-million offer was rejected. That’s when Pathfinders intervened and launched its fundraising campaign. But TPL continues to be involved in talks with Pathfinders. Reason: If Pathfinders were to acquire the Deer Lake property, TPL could help with state and/or town funding. But that’s only if the property is divided and a decision made to sell a portion to the state park system and/or the town of Killingworth.

Q: If Pathfinders acquires the property, can the Scouts still use it?

A: Yes. That’s an oft-asked question. Scouts and all youth groups are frequent weekend campers, paying a minimal fee when making reservations. That will continue. Nothing changes.

Q: What happens if Pathfinders’ bid is not accepted?

A: Then the 255 acres would be sold to Fortitude Capital LLC, and the Connecticut Yankee Council would gain $4.65 million to sink into upgrading its Sequassen and Hoyt camps. The obvious question: What would Fortitude Capital do with Deer Lake? That’s up to Streicker, and she hasn’t divulged plans.

Q: And what would happen to all those donations to Save Deer Lake?

A: Pathfinders has been clear on that: All contributions will be returned if no settlement is reached.

 

 

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