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Hooray! The Haddam Land Swap Is Dead!

This was the way the Haddam land swap ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.

To stretch the T.S. Eliot allusions a little more, for those members of Riverhouse Properties, LLC, April is the cruelest month.

On April 3, 2012, Riverhouse Properties, LLC announced on its website that it would not pursue its acquisition of 17 acres in Haddam overlooking the Connecticut River in exchange for 87 acres of land in a neighboring town that sat next to a state forest.

As a refresher, remember how last year, Senator Eileen Daily, a Democrat from Connecticut’s 33rd District (Haddam, etc), forced both houses of the legislature to give away land deeded for permanent conservation in exchange for 87 acres of forest so that the LLC could develop the 17 acres. Riverhouse owns a banquet facility abutting the 17 acres.

Daily had tried for years to use her clout to push it through, only to have Gov. Rell veto it. With a Democratic Governor in Malloy, Daily was able to give him something (God only knows what in the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours world of state politics), and he signed the law.

The law demanded, among other things, that the lands being exchanged must be of equal value, and that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection must approve the appraisals.

Vocal opponents made DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty look bad about his acquiescence to the swap.  DEEP would not release the appraisals, but in the end, that is what did the swap in.

Independent appraisers found the 17 acres overlooking the river worth $1.3 million more than the 87 acres next to the forest. Riverhouse Properties disagreed, but did not want to ante up any more land or money to make the swap happen.

Jon Lender of the Hartford Courant noted how the message appeared on the Riverhouse website on a white background. I see it as a white flag of surrender. Unfortunately, those who toiled long and hard to stop the swap are denied savor a public victory on the steps of a courthouse, or a tremendous organizing win of its repeal in the statehouse.

Senator Beth Bye of West Hartford, in commenting on Lender’s story at Courant.com, explained succinctly “The provisions of the bill worked.”

My reply was a bit longer, but worth repeating and expanding upon:

“Sen. Bye, I appreciate your confidence in the bill, but from the outside, the fact the bill ever got passed shows the inherent corruption of the system. A single powerful senator should not be able to force the legislature to destroy a constitutionally-protected contract (the sale and deed between Eagle and the state) and then move to privatize public assets (conservation land).

“In the process, conservationists everywhere grew nervous about giving land under the Heritage Trust Program in the future because the bill showed us all how Humpty Dumpty rules: words only mean what we say they mean on a certain day, and we can change that meaning at will. The uncertainty created by this is bad for everyone.”

Attorney Keith Ainsworth commented next: “Unfortunately, it didn’t die because any public official realized the enormous public policy folly. It died because the deal was not a real swap and the values were disparate.”

Most, if not all of the comments, contained words of celebration that the swap died. What didn’t the legislature see that all these everyday people do? People want conservation. We need economic development, but not at the cost of our future.

Sen. Bye voted in favor of the swap. I have long respected Sen. Bye. She rides her bike to work. She is an ardent advocate of early childhood education. But she missed the boat here.

One would prefer Sen. Bye had the courage to stand up with the five senators who voted against the swap last year because it was, in Attorney Ainsworth’s words, enormous public policy folly. The precedent is set. If you have enough power, you can pass a bill that breaks laws.

The Connecticut state senate, like the U.S. Senate, is an elite club where members afford each other special privileges. Senators look the other way and support club members even when those members break laws (recall Lou DeLuca and Thomas Gaffey) or seek to pass laws that break other laws.

This happens in the House of Representatives, too. Consider the continuing saga of Rep. Hector Robles. But calling for his resignation is futility, and he will hold onto his seat as long as good people tolerate it.

This kind of behavior by elected officials bit by bit erodes faith in the institutions created to protect us from private interests.

This battle over the swap reminds us while rationalization and horse trading serve purposes to a point in a democracy, we must not allow the ends to dominate the means.

And this is the point that Sen. Bye and her elected colleagues are missing. The legislature is not above the law. That the bill even passed was an attack on the public trust, on ecological preservation, and on the sanctity of constitutionally-protected contracts.

Challenging the land swap law head on in federal court because the Governor and the legislature attempted to circumvent fundamental rights to make contracts would have been fun. But, with this withdrawal from Riverhouse Partners, LLC, we do not have to mount such a campaign. We can send our resources elsewhere.

Like next Tuesday, April 10 at 8:30 am, the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Health Care will be hosting a “We Can’t Wait” action and prayer vigil for health care with healthcare4every1.org. The location is in the state capital in room 310.

So many other battles must be fought: Mass transit. Free college tuition. Electoral reform like instant run-off voting and increased ballot access.  Energy conservation. Rewriting policies that contribute to sprawl. Economic justice issues.

Yet one senator forced hundreds of people to spend time and energy preserving land that had already been preserved. The bright spot here is that it wasn’t a total waste, because people learned civic organizing skills.

However, the entire episode seems like a giant waste of time, as it ends with a whimper. At least this chapter.

The next step in the battle is to unseat Eileen Daily as a Senator, and then to repair the damage to the land conservation community that was done by the land swap bill.

The precedent has been set that unless the deed to the state for conservation purposes is airtight, the legislature will look for ways around it to reward special interests.

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