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Protect Undeveloped Terre Haute Before It's Too Late

Editorial by Ellen Rosenberg
as seen in THE NEWS-TIMES 10/7/01

Two weeks ago, Ridgefield voters decided to purchase the Bennett's Pond property, preserving much of it as open space.

That action mirrored recent decisions in Redding, Danbury, Brookfield and neighboring communities - all aimed at protecting large tracts from development.

No town has done enough to preserve these vanishing spaces. We must do more to rescue the rocks and rills and wooded hills before it's too late.

Bethel has a wonderful opportunity to do just that - and without the cost that faces other communities.

The Terre Haute property, which last year was targeted for a golf course, should be preserved as open space.

Located in Bethel and Danbury, Terre Haute is already owned by Bethel. The reasons for protecting this property are many:

• Making it protected open space would ensure protection of Bethel's water supply - Eureka Lake, Mountain Pond that feeds into it, and the Murphy's Brook aquifer now held in reserve against future growth..

• Protecting Terre Haute would realize the aims of Bethel's expensive, careful, municipally approved Plan of Conservation and Development - to preserve the small-town look and existing landscape and set aside land for open space.

• It also would benefit the focus which the Nature Conservancy has recently placed on the Saugatuck Forest lands. Terre Haute, Danbury's Tarrywile Park and Bennett's Pond in Ridgefield are component parts.

There are many options available to Bethel to protect Terre Haute from unwise and fiscally unsound development.

These options would allow the town to develop portions of the lowlands to produce new tax revenue while protecting other portions of Terre Haute for passive recreation, enjoyment and education.

One reason the Nature Conservancy has focused on the preservation of large parcels is that it is futile to try to save rare and endangered species on small parcels.

Terre Haute is home to exciting creatures. The state's recent "BioBlitz" program at Tarrywile detailed some of the present diversity and quality. The neighboring areas are essential for the survival of these creatures.

Biodiversity not only preserves rare species, but may help in fighting diseases like Lyme that can be dangerous to humans.

The Bethel Golf Authority, charged by town leaders in a different administration to investigate the possibilities of a golf course on town-owned land, proposed that the town back an $11.9 million bond issue for construction and initial operation of a golf course on a portion of Terre Haute.

The site is highly inappropriate for a golf course. It is extremely steep, with an elevation change equivalent to a 80-story building. It is composed of extensive ledge.

Considerable bulldozing, grading and blasting would have been required, as well as the cutting of 150 acres of trees and the breaking of the forest continuity so vital to wildlife, both plant and animal.

About one-sixth of the cost would have gone into the construction of a road up to the summit for a future clubhouse (and automobile access), with sewer and water extensions up the road. This would have tempted further development, completely contraindicated by the Bethel Plan of Conservation and Development.

Golf is a wonderful game. Terre Haute was just the wrong place for it.

In a June 2000 referendum, a high turnout of Bethel voters rejected the golf plan - 58 percent to 42 percent.

It was the right decision. The golf proposal was a financial and environmental risk that Bethel just didn't need.

Bethel's small-town atmosphere and its environment have benefited from keeping Terre Haute undeveloped all these years.

In our part of the state, we've been gobbling up land. Brookfield and Sherman tripled in population between 1960 and 1990. New Milford quadrupled its numbers in the last 30 years and is responding with multi-million dollar school construction.

The development has oozed out over the landscape, reflected in the increasing ration of land value to the value of buildings on it.

"Suburban sprawl," in the Sierra Club's words, "is irresponsible, poorly planned development that destroys green space, increases traffic and air pollution, crowds schools and drives up taxes." The answer is "smart" growth - development that channels growth into existing areas, provides public transportation options and preserves farmland and open space.

Recent studies show that open space is not only vital to maintaining the rural feel of a community, but may actually result in lower taxes and increased property values.

The Trust for Public Land found that towns in which open land makes up a larger proportion of the tax base have lower taxes on the average than more developed towns.

It also concluded that the "permanent protection of a parcel is more likely to redirect rather than preclude development . . . Instead, the conservation of key parcels may influence the location and pattern of development. This may make providing municipal services more efficient and cheaper, it may help the town meet its other goals and it may make other property in the town more valuable, resulting in increased tax revenue."

In our increasingly crowded region, let us strive for balance. Let us pay more attention to these careful, professional conservation and development plans, urging our municipal commissions to implement their recommendations.

Especially, before it is too late, let us preserve Terre Haute.

This high earth, this important piece of the beautiful Connecticut landscape, one of the features that made us happy to live here in the first place.

Ellen M. Rosenberg is an ecological anthropologist. She lives in Bethel.