A view from Glen Hill: Easement offers rare opportunity

I’ve written about the joys of walking the trails that traverse our Town Forest’s 188 acres. Located off Branch Brook Road, the forest is a beautiful stretch of pristine woods with trails carefully maintained by our town Conservation Commission and the Fairfield County Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. In fact, these trails are considered among the 10 best in the whole region for mountain biking. Mountain bikers join us walkers as together the many of us enjoy this magnificent tract!

Our town came to preserve this large wooded area through thoughtful and far-sighted decisions made almost a half-century ago in two separate land acquisitions. Our town acted promptly before these lands were developed and in so doing secured for us something that is irreplaceable.  Public/private partnerships like the one between our town and the Mountain Bike Association maintain and improve the forest’s trails without burdening our town’s operating budget.

So that brings me to the Keiser property’s easement that is coming before us all for a town vote on Nov. 19 (and continuing on Saturday, Nov. 23). At 39 acres, it’s not as large a tract as the Town Forest, but it is beautiful land, centrally located. The easement represents another important step for our town in preserving our heritage, making land available for public enjoyment in perpetuity.

Town officials estimate that the average annual cost per Wilton household for this easement over the 20-year life of the bond that will fund its purchase is $18.67. However, the actual cost is much lower than that; in fact, the purchase will confer a net financial benefit from town cost savings in education alone for the bond pay-off period far exceeding the bond’s cost, and those savings will continue in perpetuity.

Here’s how I come to that conclusion: Those 39 acres can be converted into 13 buildable lots.  Surely that will happen, absent this easement, to maximize the value of the land for the beneficiaries of the Keiser Trust that owns it. When that happens, our town will have to pay to educate two children per household, assuming average family size of four (two adults and two children). That conservatively assumes, of course, that the houses built are single family and only one per lot. (The cost savings I’m about to give would be much higher if the tract were to be developed for more intensive residential uses.)

The average annual cost per child in our school system is currently over $17,000. Annual real property taxes for each of these 13 homes would probably cover the cost for educating one of those two children, but the second child’s education costs would be borne entirely by our town. Thus, $17,000 annually times 13 houses equals $221,000. The cost of the easement to our town is $2.2 million. (The full cost of the easement is $2.5 million, but the private nonprofit Wilton Land Trust will be covering the $300,000 difference.)

At a $221,000 savings per year in education costs, the price of the easement will be recovered two times during the life of the 20-year bond. Moreover, our town will enjoy significant savings on future education expenses long after the bond is paid off (assuming regular resales of at least some of these homes to families with young children) as the tract remains undeveloped forever, adding even further to its value. For valuation purposes on this basis, if our town were to seek an annuity paying it $221,000 per year to cover these additional educational costs even at their current levels, it would have to pay (at a generous discount rate of 5%) $4.4 million — and significantly more at a more realistically lower discount rate and as education costs per child increase over time. So our town’s return on investment is very large even by private investment standards.

More than a decade has been spent pursuing this easement. Back in 2003, the cost of the easement would have been $4.5 million. Our town has now secured it for half that price. In a time when every town expenditure is properly subject to intense scrutiny, this investment in our future easily passes the most conservative financial test even as it gives us, both now and for future generations, the enjoyment of fast-dwindling open space and preserves a sense of the natural beauty of this area just as our Town Forest does.

This is an opportunity which, if passed up, is very likely lost forever.  So for us voters it’s “approve it or lose it” time right now!

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.