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03/29/2022 12:00 AM

Town Losing Hope on Last-Minute Moves to Save Deer Lake

Note: This story continues to develop with several options being discussed.

The contentious sale of the 255-acre parcel known as Deer Lake Campground Reservation is set to be completed on Thursday, March 31, according to statements from the current owners, the Connecticut Yankee Council of Scouts BSA, and town officials. The campground was put up for sale late last year and at the beginning of March an offer was accepted by the organization from a private developer, which triggered strong opposition to the sale from residents, and town and state officials.

With information coming to light that the developer seeking to purchase the property is also a member of the Yankee Council’s board, many are seeking answers as to why an organization with a clearly stated mission policy of environmental protection and awareness would sell such a unique parcel of land and to a board member.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit that assists municipalities with large land purchases, made a bid in mid-February for $2.4 million, which was rejected by the council. According to statements from the council, it has conditionally accepted a bid from Fortitude Capital, LLC, for $4.6 million, which had been increased from an earlier $3.8 million bid.

Town officials have confirmed that the CEO of Fortitude capital is Margaret Streicker, a member of the Connecticut Yankee Council’s Board of Directors, further muddying the issue of whether the council was and is negotiating with the town with full transparency.

Officials at this point do not know if the agreement might violate terms of the council’s nonprofit parameters, and the council has not commented publicly other than a statement issued at the beginning of March before the information concerning the purchaser’s identity came to light. First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski said she had been in touch with several state officials including Attorney General William Tong about this specific topic, but that no opinion had been put forth as of yet, and that she is not privy to any information that this action is, in fact, a violation of the nonprofit’s charter or mission.

“When I spoke with the attorney general, he told me he has his charitable division looking into that issue,” Gorski said. “They are already getting all the information they need to take a look into that. I just keep hoping that one day I’m going to get a call and suddenly this will all be taken care of, but I guess that’s wishful thinking.”

Council officials claimed in a statement from early March that the sale is not connected to the monies that all BSA entities of the Scouts BSA were required to pay to the parent organization after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2020 in response to the deluge of law suits that found the organization liable for systemic sexual abuse by its members and officials. That settlement is nearing a resolution in federal court with the plaintiffs, Scouts BSA, and several other religious and civic entities that are party to the suit.

In its own mission statement, the Scouts BSA states, “It is in the outdoor setting that scouts share responsibilities and learn to live with one another. It is here that the skills and activities practiced at troop meetings come alive with purpose. Being close to nature helps scouts gain an appreciation for God’s handiwork and humankind’s place in it. The outdoors is the laboratory for scouts to learn ecology and practice conservation of nature’s resources.”

The council, in its previous March statement, claimed that declining membership was a major factor in deciding to sell.

Gorski said she and her office are working diligently to develop some sort of scenario in which some or all of the property could be preserved. The Board of Selectmen passed a resolution, which was sent on to Governor Ned Lamont’s office, on March 18 to continue to work on an agreement that would preserve the parcel, according to Gorski.

“We continue to explore option as there are several options on the table,” Gorski said. “We are definitely motivated to resolve this in the best interests of the town.”

According to Gorksi, Path Finders, another local nonprofit assisting in a possible purchase of the land, is trying to raise funds to meet the offer of the developer. However, Gorksi said there could be issues associated with a purchase by another entity that in the future could limit the town’s ability to control the property should it be sold.

According to Gorksi, another option is the possibility of working a deal in which the parcel might be divided, setting aside one section for development and one for preservation, but this solution has not yet been presented to the council or the purchaser.

Some residents have called for the town to block the development should the sale go through, but this is not something the town can legally do, according to Gorski. As far as the town’s ability to impede or stall any development, the town is not legally allowed to prevent a developer from using its property, but the town planning and zoning regulations already present challenges for any entity wishing to develop the property, Gorski said.

“Well, we can’t necessarily make it hard, as far as the town, but our zoning regulations in and of itself, make it hard. So I am working to get summary of the zoning regulations that are prohibitive for that parcel,” Gorski said. “We certainly need to understand what regulations that would hinder rapid development.”

Access roads and utility installations at this point appear extremely limited, making full development a difficult proposition, according to Gorski. These construction limitations however, further cloud the council’s decision to sell the property for development in the first place and raising the question of why an investor would spend so much money on a property that faces such possible development limitations.

Multiple attempts to reach the Connecticut Yankee Council for comment went unanswered.