Proposed bill targets real estate sales for open space funds

Beacon Falls officials want to sign to proposal

BEACON FALLS — A proposed bill that would allow municipalities to collect money for open space from real estate sales has piqued the interest of officials in Beacon Falls.

Under House Bill 5254, an act establishing a pilot program authorizing municipalities to impose a buyer’s conveyance fee on real property to fund the purchase and stewardship of open space, municipalities named in the bill would be able to levy a fee of up to 1 percent on all real estate sales of $150,000 and more. According to the proposed bill, the exact percentage and amount of sale would be up to each municipality. The money from the fee would only be allowed to be used for the purchase and preservation of open space, according to the proposal.

State Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, who is vice chair of the Environment Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, said he brought the proposal forward at the request of multiple towns who were looking for ways to raise funds for open space.

“I am hoping it gives them a tool to raise money other than raising the mill rate or going out for municipal bonds,” Gresko said.

Gresko said the state has a fund for open space that municipalities can apply for money from, but it requires municipalities to match the funds.

“This is one way to raise that money,” Gresko said of the proposed bill.

Even if a municipality has its name on the bill and the bill is signed into law, it is not a mandate, Gresko said. The municipality’s governing body would have to decide how and if it wants to proceed, he said.

As of last week, the proposed bill named 11 municipalities, including Bethany, Hartford and New London. Beacon Falls officials are hoping the town will become the 12th named on the bill.

The Board of Selectmen last week approved, 2-1, requesting state lawmakers add Beacon Falls to the bill.

Conservation Commission member Lori Paradis-Brant said the bill would be a good way for the town to acquire money to purchase and preserve open space.

“I feel that it is a great opportunity for us to have some open space funding. We have very little open space funding in this town. I would venture to guess many people love the character of this town, the beauty of this town and the natural resources. We are surrounded by the state forest, never mind our own smaller areas and parks we have to enjoy,” Paradis-Brant said.

First Selectman Christopher Bielik said the town does budget about $1,000 a year for open space. However, he said, there is little that can be done to either upkeep or purchase any open space with such a small amount of money.

The Environmental Committee held a public hearing on the bill on Feb. 4. According to information on the General Assembly’s website, about 85 people gave testimony as part of the hearing.

The testimony was mixed. Multiple environmental agencies supported the bill, while real estate and construction agencies opposed it.

Jim Perras, chief executive officer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut, wrote in a letter that the organization opposed the bill because it could be used by municipalities to thwart development.

“This new tax will reduce the availability of land and raise the price of what’s left. Connecticut already has some of the highest land prices in the country and developable land is incredibly scarce,” Perras wrote. “If enacted, HB 5254 will exacerbate our affordability problems and only serve to boost the trend of outward migration and economic malaise.”

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, wrote in a letter that his organization supported the bill because municipalities have limited choices for raising money for open space.

“With the passage of HB 5254, a municipality would have another tool to raise funding by collecting a one-time fee from a new buyers of real estate in that municipality. In a sense, the new home buyer is investing both in their property, and in the maintenance of the quality of life that attracted them to that municipality in the first place,” Hammerling wrote.

There was a similar disagreement locally among the Board of Selectmen.

Selectman Michael Krenesky, who voted against requesting the town’s name be added to the bill, said the proposal is just a new tax on incoming residents.

“As I look at this, it looks like we are being given the opportunity to add a tax on top of these real estate purchases,” Krenesky said. “This is making Beacon Falls unfriendly by having another tax put on people who are going to purchase things.”

Krenesky pointed to a road reconstruction bond proposal in Beacon Falls that was defeated about six years ago as an example of people not wanting their taxes raised.

Bielik said the people who did not want the bond are now voicing concerns over the state of the roads. He said it will be similar if the town doesn’t do something about its open space funding.

“It costs money to do anything worthwhile and build up the infrastructure within a municipality. So what kind of municipality do you want to have? What are you willing to pay to get that municipality,” Bielik said.

Although the town may soon have its name added to the proposed bill, the bill itself still has a long road in front of it before being passed into a law.

Gresko said he’s hoping the Environmental Committee will approve it soon.

“If we’re lucky, it will go to House floor and then be referred to Planning and Development Committee. Then my efforts will start all over again,” Gresko said.