It was standing room only at the Town Meeting at the to decide the fate of 72 acres of land that if purchased by the town, would remain open space. More than 200 people filled the seats and stood along the walls. One after another, the residents stood up to support the purchase, and to keep the land as open space.
After only one hour of public comments, all but one person voted to purchase the land. “This is a great day for Bethel. We have proved once again that the people will spend the money for the common good,” First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker announced.
The purchase price of the land to the town of Bethel was $855,000, with $95,000 paid by Planning and Zoning from an Open Space fund.
Bill Hillman felt the decision should be put to a referendum rather than Town Meeting. He felt that the combined costs of the taxes and interest would put the amount of the purchase over a million dollars.
However, Town Attorney Marty Lawlor said that Hillman's point of order was out of order, and that if all costs were added to every purchase, they would all eventually reach over one million dollars.
First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker reminded the town that this has been a ten year process and the details of the purchase, while not yet written into the contract, did not include anything other than using the land as open space. “With the Francs and the oversight of Planning and Zoning, the primary purpose is to keep the land as open space, with the possibility of a community garden and walking trails,” Knickerbocker said.
Bob Eckenrode, of the Newtown Forest Association, said that connecting the Newtown and Franc properties creates a substantially larger 168 acre property. He said the Francs should be commended for their generosity. “The meadows are among the most endangered in Fairfield County. You will have created a legacy,” Eckenrode said.
If there were any concerns about purchasing the property, it was overwhelmingly that the land should remain in it's natural condition. Many residents asked how they could be guaranteed the land would remain as it is in perpetuity, and what contractual language could be used to overcome any future adminstration's plans to the contrary.
One resident, John Holbrook, suggested that the best way to protect the integrity of the land would be to place it in the Bethel Land Trust.
The First Selectman said that it was his intention to put together a committee immediately to determine what the uses of the property would be. He said, “We have to lock it up and protect it for the Franc family and for the people who came out here tonight.”
Jacob Franc, who said he had hayed the property for 40 years, and his sister Anna Franc, were in attendence and were overjoyed at the outcome of the meeting. With all of the older members of the family reaching close to 80 years old, Jacob was asked how he stayed so youthful. He responded, “To see things done right, you have to take care of yourself.”