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Lyme voters to decide open space question

Lyme — Amid public outcry about the effect of a recent budgeting move on the town's natural character, residents will have the chance to formalize the town's policy on open space at a town meeting next week.

A resolution to be voted up or down at the May 19 annual town meeting was proposed by the Board of Selectmen earlier this month. It would require the Board of Finance to set a minimum goal of $1 million for the open space reserve fund. It also specifies the finance board should "take all measures" to achieve that goal in the 2022-23 budget plan, and replenish the fund "in a timely fashion" whenever it is used to purchase property.

The move comes after the finance board reduced the open space reserve fund goal from $1 million to $500,000 in the 2021-22 proposed budget and cut the proposed open space allocation from $479,000 to $75,000.

Approval of the proposed $10.97 million 2021-22 budget is also on the agenda for the town meeting. If passed unchanged by voters, officials anticipate no change to the 19.95-mill tax rate.

Board of Finance Chairman Dan Hagan has described the town's savings — which currently amount to about $4 million in the general fund balance and several specific reserve funds — as an "excessive" amount of taxpayer money to be holding in reserve.

Roughly 60 people attended a public hearing on the proposed budget last month. Two dozen of them spoke in opposition to the finance board's action on open space, plus one person in favor.

First Selectman Steven Mattson said he and his fellow selectmen have been "working for three or four years with a $1 million goal," and that numerous communications between the selectmen and the finance board during that time have reinforced that target.

"The Board of Finance is trying to change the plan, which is their right," he said.

But he said selectmen feel open space is "an important enough issue" in Lyme that it shouldn't be left to either the Board of Selectmen or the Board of Finance; instead, it should be decided by voters.

Public sentiment in favor of restoring the $1 million goal revolves around Lyme's demonstrated history of preserving open space, combined with the continued importance of putting the town in a strong position to buy more property when it becomes available.

Lyme currently boasts 12,000-plus acres of preserved space — a number that represents more than half of the town's land mass.

Open space in town has been paid for with funds from entities including the town, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Lyme Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy.

John Pritchard, president of the Lyme Land Trust, this week reiterated a message sent to the finance board on behalf of the land trust's board of directors in favor of the $1 million funding target.

The letter emphasized that the collaboration between the town and the 55-year-old land trust has been "long and fruitful."

"When the Land Trust acquires property, we fund the purchase in significant part through fundraising from a small subset of our residents. While this is entirely appropriate, it remains important, we believe, that all residents have at least some part in preserving what we all love about Lyme," the letter said.

According to the land trust's website, the organization owns 42 parcels totaling 882 acres. It also manages 2,252 acres in the form of 70 private landowner conservation easements.

Pritchard, in his email to The Day, described residents as "overwhelmingly in favor of retaining the quiet, rural and historic character" of Lyme and noted that they spoke out nearly unanimously at the public hearing — but added that the finance board still chose to cut the open space funding.

"It is heartening that Lyme residents will nevertheless have the opportunity to vote on a resolution restoring the Selectmen's recommendation of the $1 million funding target," he said. "Could there be any clearer example of democracy at work?"

Mattson said the resolution was approved by all three selectmen on its way to the annual town meeting.

The first selectman said he supports it because the town needs more "financial protection" in the form of healthy reserves.

"This is just one of a number of savings funds that we have, and the Board of Selectmen believes that all those funds should be larger than they are," he said.

The unassigned fund balance — known as the rainy day fund — was at $2.4 million at end of the last fiscal year in June, Mattson said. Eight other accounts used to save for specific purposes — including open space and certain capital projects, as well as smaller funds like the cemetery and affordable housing funds — totaled $1.6 million.

Mattson said he is expecting a large crowd at the annual town meeting. "And I'm expecting, just like at the budget hearing, that the majority of the people that come out to vote and/or comment are in favor of the higher goal for open space savings," he said.

Hagan, the finance board chair, told The Day on Wednesday that he had been unaware of the proposed resolution.

"It's pretty disappointing that the Board of Selectmen, particularly the first selectman, would schedule something like this and not contact the chairman of the Board of Finance," he said.

Mattson said in response only that the annual meeting agenda was publicized "all over town" and in a public notice in the newspaper.

e.regan@theday.com

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