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Simsbury Voters To Decide Fate Of Historic MLK Site

May 3, 2021

A multimillion dollar land deal goes before voters in Simsbury on May 4 that asks residents to authorize more than $2.5 million in taxpayer money for the purchase of nearly 300 acres of land, including a spot where Martin Luther King Jr. once worked. 

If voters approve the deal, some of the land called “Meadowood” would be kept as working farmland and used for recreation. The deal also would have historical goals: preserving some old barns and housing an exhibit about Martin Luther King Jr., who worked on those old tobacco fields as a teenager for two summers in the 1940s. 

Simsbury First Selectman Eric Wellman said the overall cost of the acquisition is more than $6 million, but a combination of land grants and private donations significantly reduced the town’s cost to the $2.5 million price tag. 

“It’s really quite a bargain, and it would just be an incredible piece of land for the town to be able to own and preserve in perpetuity,” Wellman said.

But not everyone in town sees it that way. 

In early April, Simsbury’s finance board concluded it shouldn’t be up to voters to decide in an upcoming budget referendum whether the town should acquire the Meadowood property. 

Finance board member Arthur House said during a public meeting that preserving land is great, but that if the board put the question to voters, it would break a promise.

Tobacco barns along Hoskins Road in Simsbury. The town is set to vote on buying back nearly 300 acres of land where Martin Luther King Jr. once worked.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public

“I like open spaces,” House said. “I haven’t heard anything that I don’t like from tonight. But we cannot afford them all. … I do not want to send to referendum things that I don’t think should be in the budget when we’ve clearly stated that we’re not going to have a mill rate increase this year.”

So the board voted to take no action, which could have meant the budget question, and the deal, would have died and never made it to a referendum. 

But then the Simsbury Grange, a local community group, organized a petition, which gathered hundreds of signatures in just a few days and eventually forced the town to put the question before voters on May 4. 

Town officials estimate that if the project passes, the owner of a median-value home would pay an extra $25 a year in taxes for 10 years to fund town bonding of the project. 

“Communities need spaces like this. They need outdoor spaces now more than ever,” said Walker Holmes, Connecticut state director of the Trust for Public Land (TPL). 

Light leaks through an open roof of an old tobacco barn along Firetown Road in Simsbury.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public

TPL is a nonprofit based in California that is facilitating the purchase of the property in a complicated deal involving local, state and federal funding. To date, TPL has worked on about 100 projects in the state, including areas in Bridgeport and Old Saybrook. 

Holmes said TPL works to secure outside funding, which it then pairs with local taxpayer contributions to balance out the expense of the land sale. For Meadowood, Holmes said she expects funding from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the federal Highlands Conservation Act, and the state Department of Agriculture should the project get voter approval.

“When you’re noting all of those different grants and funding sources, that is an indication that protecting this property has great appeal for many different funding sources,” Holmes said. “There is broad support for it.”

But another aspect of the project has drawn criticism beyond its price tag: affordable housing. Or a lack of it.

Right now, the land belongs to developer Griffin Industrial Realty, which recently rebranded as Indus Realty Trust Inc.

An old tobacco barn door sits among overgrowth along Firetown Road in Simsbury.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public

More than two decades ago, Griffin planned to build housing on the Meadowood site. But the project got tangled up in a legal battle, which eventually resolved and gave Griffin permission to build about 300 houses on the plot. Over a decade later, those houses have never been built, despite the development getting town approval.

Griffin declined to comment for the story, saying it is “not permitted to comment on pending transactions.”

The way Wellman sees it, the Meadowood project has gotten “tangled up” in the question of affordable housing, which has spawned a number of bills in the state legislature this year seeking to broaden these types of developments in Connecticut.

Wellman said about a quarter of all homes that sold in Simsbury last year met the state’s definition for “affordable.” 

Tobacco barns along Firetown Road in Simsbury. The town is set to vote on buying back nearly 300 acres of land for preservation.
Credit Joe Amon / Connecticut Public

“I think that there’s a real opportunity for us to do more work around the issue of affordable housing, but I try really hard to separate that from the question of Meadowood,” Wellman said. “It’s not do we want to preserve open space or do we want to do affordable housing. I think that that’s a false choice.”

If voters approve the purchase, Wellman said a 24-acre portion of Meadowood would be non-deed restricted, which would give the town a lot of options for what to do with the space. 

Wellman said ballfields are one option. Another possibility, he said, is selling the plot to a developer to build affordable housing. But he said Simsbury has other housing projects in the works, so it’s too early to speculate. 

“That’s something that some members of our community have proposed,” Wellman said. “Right now, it’s way too early for me to say what proposal I would favor … I think that’s really a larger community conversation, but that’s certainly something that could be done with this land.” 

An aerial view of land along Hoskins Road in Simsbury. The town will vote May 4 on whether to buy back nearly 300 acres of former tobacco fields from a private developer to preserve it.
Credit David Wurtzel / Connecticut Public

The budget vote will be held May 4 at the Simsbury Public Library.