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HomeNewsKillingworth Town NewsThe Sale of Deer Lake Scout Reservation to a Developer Looms

The Sale of Deer Lake Scout Reservation to a Developer Looms

By Clark Judge.

(March 28, 2022) — A Killingworth resident concerned about what’s going on … or not going on … with the sale of the Deer Lake Scout Reservation was speaking recently to a friend when the subject came up. The friend had no idea what he was talking about. So, he tried to explain.

“He had no idea this was happening,” he said. “How is that possible?”

I don’t know, either. But, guaranteed, he’s not alone.

So, here’s the CliffsNotes version: The Deer Lake property has been tentatively sold to a private developer for $4.625 million, with a March 31 deadline set for “superior” offers. So far, there hasn’t been one. End of story.

Any questions?  There must be. So, let’s get to them.

Q: What is Deer Lake?

A: It’s a 255-acre property owned by the Connecticut Yankee Council of the Boy Scouts of America. It was sold to the Boy Scouts in 1959 and includes a youth day camp that runs eight weeks (late June to mid-August) and has been operated the past 35 years by Mark and Patty Clifton. Last fall, the Connecticut Yankee Council put the property on the market, and in late February it was sold to a private developer. Only the sale wasn’t final. The Council said it would consider “superior” offers by March 31.

Q: So, March 31 is the deadline?

A: Yes, unless the Connecticut Yankee Council decides to extend it. It once said it would make a decision in December, 2021. Then it postponed that date until the following January. Then it postponed that date until February. And then it acted, announcing the sale. Now the question: Will the Council be flexible again, postponing its March 31 deadline? “It’s really hard to speculate,” said Rudy Escalante, president of the Connecticut Yankee Council Board of Directors. “When someone has a real deal, they should come to us.” That was Friday.

Q: Who makes the decision?

A: The Yankee Council Board of Directors. The Council’s website lists 42 members, with Escalante saying the full board will make the decision.

Q: Who are the interested parties?

A: There are two, according to the Council. One is Fortitude Capital, LLC, a private developer headed by Margaret Streicker. It reportedly offered $3.7 million for the property before upping that figure to $4.625 in February, causing the Scouts to accept. The other party is the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit organization with a mission “to create parks and protect land for people.” It works in partnership with the Town of Killingworth and local communities and has offered $2.4 million twice, with its first overture turned down in February.

Q: What are Fortitude Capital’s plans?

A: Nobody knows. But developers develop, right? So the fear is that green space would be lost and/or compromised. If private development is proposed, expect to hear from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Q: Why such a wide disparity in offers?

A: Simple: Appraisals. The Council’s assessment was $3.7-4.2 million; TPL’s appraisal was considerably lower at $2-2.4-million. “That appraisal,” Escalante said of TPL’s figure, “pretty much nails everybody to the wall.” That was in February. But he’s right. The reason: TPL policy prevents it from exceeding fair-market value, and its appraisal fixed that value. TPL has a strong record of building public support and coordinating funding to protect land from development. In 2013, it brought together local land trusts, three towns, Save the Sound and local grassroots advocacy groups to save a 1,000-acre parcel known as the Saybrook Preserve. In 2010 it joined with the Town of Madison to purchase the 42-acre Madison Airport Property. But as a tax-exempt organization, TPL won’t enter into deals to overpay for acreage. Funding from public entities like the State of Connecticut, the U.S. Government and the Town of Killingworth also are constrained by fair-market value. Bottom line: TPL is unable to compete with the $4.625-million offer – hoping, instead, that the Scouts act in accordance with their mission, accept its offer and preserve the property in the name of conservation.

Q: What are the chances?

A: Remote, unless the Scouts’ board pulls an immediate U-turn … and that seems unlikely. TPL’s figure hasn’t changed since it was first declined. “I told the Trust for Public Land on numerous occasions that if you’re close, we’d accept it,” Escalante said last month. “I don’t know if ‘close’ mean a hundred dollars or $100,000, but at least it has to be close. But if it’s not close, it’s an easy decision. And they weren’t close.”

Q: So, then, this seems like a done deal. Correct?

A: No.  Not yet. First of all, there’s still time … though precious little. Second, an aggressive grass-roots movement, led by a non-profit group known as Pathfinders is raising money to help the town and TPL. Pathfinders is a non-profit, in existence the past 35 years, which is devoted to the preservation of Deer Lake as green space. It is actively involved in talks with TPL and has been in touch with Escalante and Streicker. A combination of TPL’s offer and private fundraising by Pathfinders might seem a solution to reaching $4.7 million, but it’s not – again, because TPL cannot enter into a partnership to exceed fair-market value.  Nevertheless, there are other options.

Q: Such as?

A: Splitting the property in two, with 120 acres devoted to the summer youth camp and the remaining 135 acres to open space. Pathfinders would negotiate to buy the former; TPL would negotiate to buy the latter. Some people think that’s unlikely – particularly with the Scouts having a $4.625-million intent-to-buy on the table – but Escalante’s comments (“when somebody has a real deal they should come to us”) suggest the Yankee Council is open to all options. The second is a bit trickier. If the Scouts were to receive a substantial separate donation, contingent on its acceptance of TPL’s offer, it might be willing to accept TPL’s proposal. Confused? Essentially, it means people are free to make donations to the Connecticut Yankee Council on their own. Now the question: If the figure raised independently were to amount to an additional $2-3 million, would the Connecticut Yankee Council accept TPL’s offer? Escalante did not answer. “There have been a million different ways that people have proposed on Facebook,” he said. “Tell them to come back to us with something specific, and we’ll look at it.” That sounds like someone willing to listen.

Deer Lake in warmer weather

Q: Why hasn’t the Killingworth Board of Selectmen called for a referendum?

A: Time. When the Connecticut Yankee Council announced its sale last month, it set a deadline that was six weeks away. That wasn’t enough time to conduct public hearings and meetings prior to putting this to a vote. All of those steps require advance notice. Furthermore, a referendum must be based on real numbers, including the cost of bonding, as well as state and federal support. Only when those numbers were determined would a vote be called. If the proposal advanced by TPL were accepted, however, it would proceed to put together financing for the acquisition and devise plans for stewardship of the land. TPL has extensive experience in conducting public education, structuring public/private partnerships and assisting towns with referendums and fundraising. That’s why  Killingworth’s Board of Selectmen asked for TPL’s help and why it issued a public resolution on March 18 “strongly supporting” it.

Q: Are the futures of Deer Lake as open space and the summer youth camp separate issues?

A: Yes … and no. The camp is part of the Deer Lake property, so if the Scout Reservation is sold to an outside interest, the camp facilities are sold with it. That said, while the future of the 255 acres of Deer Lake is uncertain, the immediate future of the camp is not. It was leased for this summer to Pathfinders and will be run by the Cliftons. Beyond this year, however, its future is in flux … though there has been talk of extending the lease.

Q: How much attention has this gotten?

A: Plenty. When the Connecticut Yankee Council announced last fall that Deer Lake was for sale, a Save Deer Lake page was created on Facebook. It has 1,700 followers. Then, following a January news conference that included U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, state Sen. Christine Cohen, state Rep. Christine Goupil, and several environmental, preservation and advocacy groups, the Deer Lake story gained significant local coverage – from the CT Insider to H-K News to the Krier, Source and Middletown Press. But coverage broadened on March 17 when the Associated Press entered the scene with a story entitled “Advocates Hope to Stop Sale of Deer Lake to Developer.” With the AP involved, Deer Lake became more than a local topic. It became a regional and national subject. That was demonstrated two days later when a story entitled “Opponents Fight Land Parcel Sale” appeared above the fold on the front page of the Hartford Courant. Now, broadcast media have been alerted and, with a deadline approaching, could be (should be?) next to run with it.

Q: What is the danger of losing Deer Lake to a private developer?

A: According to a study conducted by The Nature Conservancy, Connecticut loses an area “most resilient” to climate change. With a series of colored maps that appear on its Resilient and Connected Network (Resilient and Connected Landscapes (conservationgateway.org)), TNC lists Deer Lake as one of the most valuable sites near the shore 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 thrives.” That message was echoed by Save the Sound, an environmental action group that fights climate change, saves endangered lands, protects Long Island Sound and its rivers … and has been outspoken in its support of the Save Deer Lake project. “There is a direct correlation between contiguous forest and water quality,” said Bill Lucey, the Long Island Soundkeeper since 2017. “If the watershed is degraded, it will degrade Long Island Sound. If you want to clean up Long Island Sound you have to restore the damaged watersheds that empty into it. It is far cheaper to protect intact forests than to restore them after they are damaged.” In essence, you lose more than 255 acres of land. You lose an invaluable resource that contributes to a better life. “For all of us,” said Sen. Blumenthal at a January news conference, “(Deer Lake) represents the best of Connecticut. It is part of the ecological lifeblood of this region. If we lose it, there is no way to recover. Once it’s lost … once it’s developed … once it’s gone … it’s gone forever.”

Photos by Clark Judge.

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