(Waterbury Republican-American) Sen. Kane: Southbury Training School Farmland Saved for Agriculture

May 31, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Waterbury Republican-American

After almost getting derailed last week, a bill that would preserve over 800 acres at the state-run Southbury Training School is about to become law. The Senate late Wednesday unanimously approved the bill, which calls for the state Department of Developmental Services — which runs the training school — to convey the farmland to the state Department of Agriculture through a conservation easement to prohibit development and promote farming. The bill now goes to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk. He said in a statement Thursday he will sign it into law.

“Farmland is a precious commodity in our state and it is absolutely important that we protect what we have for future agricultural use,” Malloy said. “I want to thank First Selectman (Ed) Edelson and the Southbury legislative delegation for working with us on adopting this legislation to protect this parcel in southwestern Connecticut, and I look forward to continuing our cooperative work with the Town of Southbury.”

The measure is a major victory not only for the politicians who lobbied for its passage, but for a community that has made land preservation a priority the past two decades. The land at the training school, the state’s only institution for developmentally disabled men and women, is the largest open space tract in town. “This is something that many environmental leaders in our community have been seeking for so many years,” Edelson said.

“Over the past two years, I have been working continuously with the governor’s office to see how we can get this legislation crafted. His leadership and commitment to farming, open space, habitat management and the Southbury Training School farmlands in particular have been clear throughout the process.” Rep. Arthur J. O’Neill, R-Southbury, applauded Malloy’s statement Thursday. He had to do some fast work last week after the House unanimously approved the legislation. Instead of going directly to the Senate, the bill was sent to the legislature’s Human Services Committee, and there was fear it would not be brought back for a vote.

A determined O’Neill, who has tried for over 20 years to keep the land from being developed, worked to get the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

There he was assisted by Sen. Robert J. Kane, R-Watertown, who represents Southbury in the Senate. “You can’t let politics get in the way of good policy. This is really good policy,” Kane said of the bill, which will allow the agriculture department to lease the orchards and fields for farming. “There are plenty of opportunities for development, but there’s also plenty of opportunities to do what is right.”

Once it got back on the calendar, senators approved the bill without debate Wednesday by a vote of 36-0. Two weeks ago, it passed the House by a vote of 135-0. The preservation deal would be the largest in Southbury since 2001, when voters agreed to spend $8.65 million to buy 760 acres in the rural Purchase section, to the west and southwest of the training school.

The town partnered with the state to buy that property — the state contributed $3.38 million for title to 557 acres — but this time taxpayers won’t pay anything. O’Neill said the state was supposed to lease the land for farming as part of legislation he introduced more than 20 years ago, but that was never done. “For a variety of reasons the state agencies charged with this task were unable to implement it,” he said. “Partly this was a result of state leasing policies and partly a result of the fact that encouraging agricultural use of these lands was not a core mission of any of the agencies involved.”

This year, O’Neill and Kane lobbied hard to get the bill into lawmakers’ hands. They said the Malloy administration helped push the bill through, and they credited Edelson, Selectman Chad Landmon and Roxbury First Selectman Barbara Henry for submitting testimony in support to the legislature’s Environment Committee. The Southbury Land Trust will become the property’s primary caretaker, and will oversee all lease deals to farmers. “Now it is up to all of us to make sure these premier farmlands are used to reinvigorate local farming in Southbury,” Edelson said.