SOUTHINGTON — Town officials are making the case for buying development rights for Southington Country Club, a deal they believe voters will support at referendum if it’s explained.
Voters have supported spending on open space acquisition in recent years, although the Southington Country Club deal is the largest in decades at $4.5 million and the first development rights purchase for a specific property that’s gone to referendum.
The town hasn’t yet signed a contract with Southington Country Club, a Savage Street golf course whose owners include Raymond Kastner, Joseph Calvanese Jr. and Christopher Calvanese. Several town boards and town voters have to support the deal before it’s finalized.
What are development rights?
If the sale is approved, the Kastner and Calvanese families would remain owners of the golf course but would lose the ability to build houses on the nearly 100-acre property. Any future owners of the property would also be prevented from using the land for anything other than recreational purposes such as golf, according to the contract. Owners would also be prevented from subdividing the land.
Golf course owners received approval for a 114-lot subdivision years ago and approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission expires in October.
Unlike in cases where the town purchases land outright, Southington Country Club remains private if the town buys development rights on it. But town officials have said there’s still numerous benefits to preserving large, mostly-open land plots.
Subdivision ready to go
Town Planner Rob Philips estimated the construction of 114 houses would add more than 100 children to the school system, costing an additional $1.3 million per year. He presented the estimates, based on demographic data from Rutgers University, at a Town Council meeting Monday.
Since the golf course owners already have subdivision approval, those houses could be built at any time.
“Tomorrow they could submit for building and zoning permits for their first lot,” Philips said.
Town officials say there’s a unique opportunity to prevent that development and associated costs for education and municipal services by buying development rights. John Leary, chairman of the town’s finance board, said the contract was a “significant amount of money” but also saw the benefits of the deal.
“We also prevent costs too. There will be a savings that offsets the payment,” he said.
Hawk’s Landing Country Club
Owners of Hawk’s Landing Country Club, another local golf course and about the same size as Southington Country Club, sold development rights to the town in 2016. The contract totaled just under $1 million and didn’t meet the threshold for a public referendum.
Town Council Republicans supported the purchase, saying it was a way to preserve land at a lower cost than an outright land acquisition.
Two years earlier, local developer Mark Lovley bought North Ridge Golf Club, formerly Pine Valley Golf Course, and gained approval of the town Planning and Zoning Commission to build 94 houses on half of the site. Part of his approval stipulated that the remaining nine holes can only be used for recreation.
Two council Democrats opposed the 2016 development rights purchase, saying voters who approved open space acquisition funds might not have understood that the money would be used for anything other acquiring public land.
Two appraisers determined that about 40 homes could be built at Hawk’s Landing. Due to geography and layout, more than 100 can be built at Southington Country Club.
The number of homes that could fit on a property drives the value of development rights, Philips said. Southington Country Club is also more valuable to a developer since there’s already town approval for a subdivision, a process that involves cost and risk.
An appraisal conducted by Wellspeak, Dugas & Kane of Plantsville determined the value of development rights to be $4.7 million. Golf course owners agreed to a sale price of $4.5 million.
Referendum in May
On Monday, the Town Council voted to send the deal to the Planning and Zoning Commission for approval. The Board of Finance also intends to hold a public hearing in February and then take a vote, although members are only offering a financial recommendation to the town.
Town Manager Mark Sciota said the council also plans a public hearing in late February on the deal prior to a vote to send it to referendum.
Since owners of the golf course have until October to decide whether or not to subdivide, the referendum can’t take place during November’s municipal elections. Sciota said it could take place on May 4 at Derynoski School if the council decides to move forward with the deal.
Making the case
Voters have approved millions of dollars in undesignated open space acquisition funds in recent years. The last referendum on a specific open space acquisition was in 2004 when voters supported the outright purchase of the Southington Drive-In property for $1.6 million. It’s now a town-run drive-in movie theater.
The Southington Country Club deal isn’t an outright purchase and will require more explanation for voters, according to Town Council Chairwoman Victoria Triano. She was optimistic that once residents understand the deal, they’ll support it.
“The thing is education. Many times, people don’t understand development rights,” she said. “We want to answer questions, we want folks to know what we see when we look at the property.”
Chris Palmieri, a Democratic councilor who voted against the Hawk’s Landing deal, said he’s in favor of buying development rights for Southington Country Club. His concerns about using open space acquisition funds for development rights in 2016 don’t apply now, since the referendum is specifically for development rights on the Savage Street golf course.
“Instead of nine of us making a decision for the 40,000-plus people, this gives all the residents an opportunity to voice their opinion,” Palmieri said. “There’s significant impact if the country club were to be turned into a development… Now it’s a matter of getting all that information to the public so that they truly understand it.”
Prior to a referendum on buying the John Weichsel Municipal Center building, Southington officials made a video, visited local organizations and held public hearings touting the benefits of the deal. They’re planning a similar effort this year.
There’s a presentation available on the town website which can be accessed at https://www.southington.org/news_detail_T36_R223.php. Sciota said he’s also considering a short video with information on the deal that can help explain it.
Triano said spending $4.5 million isn’t something town leaders take lightly.
“I think it’s the best use of our dollars,” she said.