Malloy, Esty refuse to examine controversial Haddam land swap

What to do when a land deal sought by a political ally becomes a hot potato? If you are Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his environmental commissioner, Daniel C. Esty, the answer is lay low while the legislative session winds down.

The Malloy Administration on Monday ignored the latest challenge to review a proposal by Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, to give the owners of a catering hall 17 acres of open space overlooking the Connecticut River in Haddam in a land swap.

The Democratic co-chairs of the Environment Committee, Rep. Richard Roy of Milford and Sen. Edward Meyer of Guilford, took separate actions Monday to force a review of the proposed swap by the Department of Environmental Protection.

But Esty has not responded, despite an outcry by most major environmental groups in the state. As for Malloy, he is staying uninvolved.

“I’m not looking for trouble. I’d be very happy if nobody talks to me about it, we get the rest of the session done, then I’ll throw myself, like I do, at an issue and understand it,” Malloy said. “You know what? I’m purposefully not trying to dig into this issue right now.”

His predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, vetoed a land conveyance bill in 2009 that included the same proposed transfer, questioning if the state was obtaining fair value on the various parcels.

Last year, the Haddam provision was deleted by the Government Administration and Elections Committee after a representative of Rell’s DEP strongly objected.

With Rell gone, Daily is not facing any public opposition from the executive branch, despite efforts by the Sierra Club and other groups to press Esty to publicly comment on the deal. Daily is a Malloy ally who helped pass the budget and gave the governor help winning passage of paid sick days legislation by a single vote.

Esty’s spokesman, Dennis Schain, said Monday night that Esty had no comment on a bipartisan request earlier in the day by Roy and other legislators to review the proposed transfer of open space for development.

Roy said he’s received plenty of reaction to his letter, but not from Esty.

Meanwhile, Meyer filed an amendment to the land conveyance legislation that would require Esty to conduct a formal review. The conveyance bill covers seven other smaller swaps or transfers.

“I’ve given it to leadership,” Meyer said of the amendment. “I’ve had no feedback. The silence is deafening.”

With the amendment, Meyer can force a roll vote on the Haddam deal.

“We’re going to get an up and down vote on giving away conservation property,” Meyer said. “I’ve heard from every environmental group in the state. If I didn’t do this, I’d probably have to resign my chairmanship.”

Daily said the land swap is supported by local officials in her district, who wish to see economic development on a portion of the site. The developer has offered 87 acres of land in a trade, giving the state a net gain of 70 acres.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Daily said. “I think it’s good environmental policy to add 70 acres of open space to our open space holdings. I think it’s good economic development policy.”

Daily said she saw no reason for the state to advertise for proposals on the land, rather than give it to the owners of the adjacent Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station, a banquet facility on a ridge with a view across the Connecticut River of the Goodspeed Opera House. They have proposed a hotel and conference center on the land.

Riverhouse operates a sister catering facility in downtown Hartford, the Society Room.

“Let me tell you, this has been in the public domain for over three years. Not anybody else has expressed any interest in it whatsoever,” Daily said of the land in Haddam.

According to the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, the state bought the 17-acre parcel in 2003 for $1.3 million, and Riverhouse is offering to swap 87 acres adjacent to Cockaponset State Park that was purchased for $450,000 in 2009.

Martin Mador, the legislative chairman of the Sierra Club, said how the state sells conservation land is a statewide issue. He supports Meyer’s amendment in the Senate.

The land swap also has caused divisions in the House.

Rep. Philip Miller, D-Essex, whose district includes Haddam, sent his colleagues an email Thursday opposing the swap, generating a sharp response from Rep. Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton.

“There is nothing unusual or untoward about this swap; it is being done at the behest and for the benefit of the community to develop that part of Haddam that has been determined to be most appropriate for development,” Moukawsher wrote.

Moukawsher, who serves with Daily on the finance committee and Meyer and Roy on environment, suggested that Miller had wrongly claimed part of the site was a wildlife refuge. Miller told legislators that Moukawsher was wrong.

“Contrary to what the esteemed representative is alleging here, this isn’t about personalities. It is about the principle that the legislature shouldn’t convey what is clearly conservation land as though it was surplus land,” Miller wrote in an email “Conservationists throughout the state are aghast at this possibility.”

Miller said he stands by his email.

“I’m fighting this over the principle that the state should not consider conservation land as though it was surplus land,” Miller said.

Moukawsher, whose district is not near the contested site, said he involved himself in the dispute after Daily asked him to vote for the conveyance bill. He said he examined the record and saw a degree of hysteria in the opposition.

“I just thought the concerns around Sen. Daily were so out of line,” he said. “I don’t understand the hysteria.”