Ridgefield voters approve 14-acre open space purchase

The purchase of 14 acres of woodlands off Bear Mountain Road as open space was approved by Ridgefield voters a July 15 town meeting.

The purchase of 14 acres of woodlands off Bear Mountain Road as open space was approved by Ridgefield voters a July 15 town meeting.

James Coyle / Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — More of the town’s woodlands will be protected.

About 50 voters approved the purchase of 14 acres of open space at Wednesday’s special town meeting via the online platform Zoom.

“It’s just trees and rock and animals and plants,” Conservation Commission member Jack Kace said, describing the parcel. “It’s a pretty picturesque section. It’s high elevation, and very steep, at least on two-thirds of the property.”

The $140,000 cost of the 14-acre purchase is being covered a combination of funds accumulated by the Conservation Commission in its Open Space Fund, and grant money the commission is trying to obtain.

“There will be no general fund money or town taxpayer money for this purchase,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

Conservation Commission Chairman James Coyle said the acquisition will serve as a connector between an otherwise landlocked 3-acre piece of open space the town owns, and the much larger Hemlock Hills open-space tract.

“This Bear Mountain purchase is a big deal. It has been 15 years since the commission has purchased open space,” Coyle said Thursday. “The property itself is already in a pristine natural state, pretty much free of invasive species, and will link Hemlock Hills to an isolated three-acre parcel of existing open space.

“The linkage is key,” he said. “The commission plans to put in trails in the Bear Mountain open space to enhance those linkages.”

Hemlock Hills is 385 acres and adjoins the 313-acre Pine Mountain open space and the 460-acre Bennett’s Pond State Park, creating what Marconi described as the town’s largest open-space area, at 1,158 acres.

With the 14-acre purchase, and the 3 acres that will connect to the larger parcels, the town will have 1,175 acres of contiguous open space.

The Conservation Commission is still working on two grants that could reduce its cost, Coyle said.

The commission has obtained a $25,000 grant from The Thrift Shop which was earmarked for a one-acre parcel near Lake Mamanasco, a purchase that was derailed a few weeks back by opposition from neighbors on Craigmoor Road.

“There were two possible grants under evaluation,” Coyle said. “We did receive $25,000 from the Thrift Shop but that was for the defunct Craigmoor Road property. I have requested consideration from the Thrift Shop to apply that full amount to Bear Mountain.”

Another grant could come from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“We also did apply to the DEEP for an OSWA (Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition) grant for the Bear Mountain property. They will fund up to 65 percent of the purchase price. “However, there is no guarantee that we will receive a grant from them. We are purchasing the property anyway,” Coyle said.

If the grant from the state comes through, it would total $91,000.

Grants or not, Coyle is hopeful the deal — now being finalized by attorneys — will be completed soon.

“This summer,” Coyle said. “Town counsel is working on the paperwork as we speak.”

Although the money is coming from the Open Space Fund, financed by private donations, and not from the town’s annual budget or general fund, it still required a town meeting vote. Under the town charter any transaction involving town land needs approval by voters.

The number of people who attended the meeting via Zoom is not entirely clear.

Andrew Neblett, the town’s information technology director, said 27 people were signed up — members of the Board of Selectmen, the Conservation Commission, and other people who had business on the selectmen’s agenda that followed the town meeting.

Additionally, a similar number of people were signed up to get the meeting on Zoom as “registered attendees,” though Neblett couldn’t say how many actually attended.

The 14-acre acquisition advances the town a bit closer toward its goal of having 30 percent of Ridgefield’s more than 22,000 acres or 35-square-mile area as preserved as open space. The 30 percent has long been a Conservation Commission target and is stated as goal in the town’s recently updated Plan of Conservation and Development by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“Congratulations to the Conservation Commission on this purchase,” Marconi said at the end of the town meeting. “We are striving to get to 30 percent — we’re at about 25.2, so every little bit is going to help. There are not a lot of large parcels left in our community, so we need to be diligent in our pursuit of open space.”