Last-day legislative drama centers on Haddam land swap

With no major legislation remaining, the General Assembly was free today to mull and eventually approve the contentious Haddam land swap, one of the intensely personal issues, favors and grievances that add drama to the frenetic last day of every annual session.

Bills are held to the last day for myriad reasons, often having nothing to do with content or merit. They are chips in a game, hostages to be exchanged as one chamber passes the others’ bills while the clock inches toward a midnight adjournment.

The last day is when House members stand behind a brass rail in the Senate, waiting to see if their bills have been blessed with a place on the consent calendar, the upper chamber’s way of passing bills in batches on a single unanimous vote.

Case in point: After debating a single budget bill for more than eight hours Tuesday, the Senate then passed 73 House bills at 11:25 p.m. on one consent calendar and two more 30 minutes later on a second.

So there always is hope for a House bill languishing in the Senate, no matter how crowded the calendar or how late the hour, as long as legislators and their bills can avoid getting entangled in other fights, such as the Haddam land swap.

The Senate voted 31 to 5 to approve the deal and send it downstairs to the House, where it passed 90 to 58 at 11:06 p.m., 54 minutes before the constitutional deadline for adjournment.

It turns out today was a nerve-wracking day to have an environmental bill on the calendar, to be Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, or to be one of the legislators with a routine provision in what has become a very controversial land conveyance bill.

As the co-chairman of the Environment Committee, Meyer has been trying to subject a land swap proposed by Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, and favored by Senate leaders to a review by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Daily Welch Roraback
Sen. Andrew Roraback (r), Sen. Eileen Daily (l)

Meyer said he was told by other legislators that if he tried to amend a land conveyance bill that includes the Haddam swap, no other environment bill would go forward before midnight.

“It’s a travesty,” Meyer said before the debate. He did not call his amendment, leaving the task to Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, as what Meyer called a gesture to “caucus peace.”

Meyer, who ultimately voted for the bill, was being urged on by environmentalists such as Martin Mador, the legislative chair of the Sierra Club. Mador says environmentalists are concerned about the precedent of swapping state open space without a DEP review.

Mador was not a popular figure among some of the legislators with other provisions in the land conveyance bill–mostly transfers of small parcels to municipalities for recreation, economic development or other uses.

“You’re making a mess,” said Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-Fairfield. “We don’t need this on the last day.”

Mador called out to Rep. Bryan Hurlburt, D-Tolland, as Hurlburt passed by. Hurlburt, who is trying to obtain land for Tolland, ignored him.

“If I was a humongously crafty lobbyist, maybe I’d be doing this differently,” Mador said.

Riverhouse Properties LLC is proposing to trade 87.7 acres of land adjacent to the Cockaponset State Forest in return for 17 acres adjacent to its banquet facility, the Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station. Both parcels are in Haddam.

The Malloy Administration has refused calls by environmentalists to assess the proposed swap, and Malloy and his commissioner of environmental protection, Daniel C. Esty, took more grief from opponents of the deal than did Daily. The land is owned by DEP, but the agency would not offer an opinion on the trade.

“How can the DEP say, ‘We don’t take a position? That is so irresponsible, and I like Dan Esty,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield.

“The governor’s silence on this issue is deafening,” said Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen.

Daily made a presentation to the Senate Democratic caucus after the session Tuesday night, sharing a glossy booklet with aerial photographs of the two parcels, plus testimonials from supporters of the deal, including Larry McHugh, president of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce.

“I believe this opportunity to leverage 17 isolated acres in a developed area for 87 pristine acres adjacent to an existing state forest is a good use of state assets simply at face value,” Daily said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, said Daily has the support of the caucus. The 17 acres sought by Riverhouse is surrounded by industrial uses and is suitable for development, he said.

“This makes a great deal of sense,” he said.

Mador and Meyer said the swap ultimately could be a good deal for the state, but they question why it has not been vetted by the DEP or examined to see if the state would be getting fair value in the trade.

“It’s all about the process,” Mador said. “It’s all about preserving public faith.”

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the controversy over the Haddam land swap has grown out of proportion, due to the efforts of the environmentalists.

“It seems to many of us that some members of the environmental community have gone off the rails,” Looney said.

Looney acknowledged that other environmental bills could die on the calendar from inaction as a result of the dispute with Meyer, who sits next to Looney in chamber.

But he was reassuring on House Bill 6557, a measure that Mador and the Sierra Club want to see passed.

It passed the House a month ago on a vote of 142 to 1. It limits liability on municipalities and other public entities, like the Metropolitan District Commission in Greater Hartford, who open their lands to passive recreation.

For much of the day Wednesday, it appeared to be caught up in the Haddam fight.

Not so, Looney said.

The bill is considered the work product of Sen. Eric Coleman’s Judiciary Committee, not Meyer’s Environment Committee. And on Wednesday, the last day of the 2011 session of the Connecticut General Assembly, that was a distinction that made a difference.

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