In what may be a third bite at the apple of steep, rocky open space, the Conservation Commission is once again nearing a deal to purchase 28 acres off Ledges Road — with no plans to put up a cell tower, this time.
“We have theoretically an agreed deal to purchase the property that we’ve been looking at for the last several years — the property that we tried to purchase as a joint venture with the town and the town would use its part of the purchase for a cell tower,” Ben Oko of the Conservation Commission said late last week.
“But, as we need to remember, the citizens of the town did not wish to have money spent by the town for a cell tower,” Dr. Oko said.
“So we’re buying this with conservation money, and our money is for the purchase of open space, not for the purchase of a cell tower. So this property will not have a cell tower on it, if we purchase it with conservation money.”
The purchase would have to be approved by voters at a town meeting, even though the $825,000 price would not be coming from tax dollars.
The “conservation money” Dr. Oko spoke of is the Open Space Conservation Fund, made up of private donations and also contributions from land developers seeking to avoid setting aside physical open space land in a subdivision.
The commission is soon to begin the annual appeal that builds up the open space fund.
In 2011 the Conservation Commission and the Board of Selectmen collaborated on a proposed $1-million deal that would have had nearly all of the Ledges Road property purchased as open space, using money from the conservation fund, but with about a third of an acre bought with separate town money so it could be rented as a cell tower site.
After months of controversy, public debate, and fierce neighborhood opposition, the proposal was voted down in June 2011.
That fall, the Conservation Commission tried to work out a renegotiated purchase without the cell tower. There was even a town meeting called, and Dr. Oko appeared before the gathered townspeople to say the sellers — a partnership of three — had apparently backed out of the deal.
As of the middle of this week, Dr. Oko said the Conservation Commission had gotten a signed contract back from one partner, and was awaiting signed copies from the other two. He expects the paperwork soon since the sellers seemed eager to complete the deal.
“We’re 98% sure we’re going to get the contracts back, and then we’ll schedule a public hearing and a town meeting before the end of the year,” he said. “We’re trying to accommodate their wish to get it done.”
Dr. Oko said he had no reason to believe First Selectman Rudy Marconi or the Board of Selectmen would not support the purchase of the property exclusively for open space — as they did in late 2011, when the commission came back with a second proposal after townspeople had rejected the cell tower plan earlier in the year.
“We’ll go through the process,” he said. “The thing that people are talking about, everybody wants to know about the cell tower.”
The loss of electrical and other utility services during the recent Storm Sandy has emphasized the difficulties people in parts of northern Ridgefield have as a result of poor cell service there — problems that also came to light in last fall’s storms, Irene and Alfred.
With the price of the land down from the previous $1 million, the Conservation Commission may now pursue the deal without getting additional money from the town by tacking on a cell tower site — and inviting neighborhood opposition the first time around.
“We’re not going down that road again,” Dr. Oko said.
“We were going to buy the land, but we couldn’t afford it. Now the price has dropped and we have enough to purchase it without the tower construction.”
He won’t ask First Selectman Marconi to schedule a public hearing and town meeting until all the paperwork is in order.
“Given the history of this property,” Dr. Oko said, “Rudy wants to wait until we have signed contracts until he schedules anything.”