NAUGATUCK — The borough last month began working to purchase 146 acres of vacant land off Andrew Mountain Road, resurrecting a long debate between local sports activists and land preservationists.
Environmental groups won the first round a little more than a year ago, when 39 acres off nearby Gunntown Road opened as a passive park and nature preserve, even though sports supporters wanted fields there. Some see the new purchase as a second chance to alleviate the athletic field space crunch in the borough, while preservationists argue against any human development.
“We have a real crying need of passive areas that are just plain left alone,” said Len Yannielli, a leading advocate of the Gunntown park. “There are wildlife that just do not tolerate the encroachments we make, even when we do it in a low-impact way. We need that type of passive open space that’s wholly left to nature, so that these animals have a place to stay, so that bobcats don’t appear in our back yards.”
The asphalt roadways and parking lots that accompany fields would harm the soil, Yannielli said, and would limit tree and plant growth that purifies air and water. Oil and other chemicals from cars would pollute the land and flow down the hill, especially if trees are cleared, Yannielli said.
Park Commission Chair Patrick Wagner said he likes the way Gunntown turned out, but the borough should not pass up the opportunity to solve the 15-year-old problem of crowded and overrun sports fields.
The property off Andrew Mountain Road is almost four times the size of Gunntown and contains some flat spots that could accommodate fields, although it has to be surveyed to determine which portions are wetlands that cannot be disturbed, said James Stewart, director of public works.
A football field, or even a sports complex, could be built on the land while leaving the rest as passive open space, Wagner said.
“They both can exist on a spot that big,” Wagner said. “We could possibly solve the field space problem for the next 20 years with something that big. … We’re drooling, there’s no doubt about it. We’re drooling because this is the first move we’ve made the move to acquire a big parcel of land in a long, long time, and I think it would be foolish to just earmark it for open space when you’ve got a whole Hunters Mountain up there.”
A chained-off former stagecoach route known as the old Derby Turnpike leads from Andrew Mountain Road to the land, which comprises four parcels that four partners bought at least 40 years ago. Some of the original partners have died, and the land is now owned by 19 heirs scattered throughout the country, said Kevin Condon, the Ansonia-based attorney representing the owners.
Until several years ago, the land was mostly used as a corn farm, Condon said. It might also contain an area known as the “pig farm” which, regardless of its possible agricultural origins, is mostly known among native borough west-siders as a place teenagers went to party.
One of the parcels was included in the proposed Huntington Hills Estates subdivision, which Bridgeport-based developer John Guedes received approval for in 2008. The plan envisioned 240 single-family homes over 373 acres on Andrew Mountain and Hunters Mountain roads, but has been stalled during the course of several lawsuits. Guedes’s company, Primrose Development, is battling the Planning Commission over the amount he will be required to post as a security bond, said his attorney, Watertown-based Franklin Pilicy.
“If you took one parcel out, I don’t know how that would affect the subdivision,” Pilicy said. “I don’t even know which parcel it is.”
The borough would pay $750,000 for the land, staggering the payments over five years with no interest, Mayor Robert Mezzo said. Pending the results of an environmental evaluation, the land could be officially purchased by July 1. The money would be allocated out of a portion of the borough’s fund balance that is set aside every year for nonrecurring expenses.
The environmental assessment will likely be paid for through a Naugatuck Valley Brownfields Pilot federal grant, Mezzo said. A state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection grant could cover the land acquisition costs, but such a grant might restrict any development on the land. The borough will need to research the parameters and decide on a use for the land before it can apply.
“The parcel is extremely large, so there are many possibilities, and that will be discussed by the borough board and analyzed by the appropriate land use bodies,” Mezzo said. “You could conceivably develop portions of it and still have large portions of open space surrounding it.”
Borough officials were mainly interested in buying the land to prevent further development on it, Mezzo said. The land is in “pristine condition” and if it were developed into houses, the borough would eventually spend more money on education and city services for the residents than it would recoup through taxation, Mezzo said.
“The borough has a very dense population and has developed many areas of the community to their maximum,” Mezzo said.