After a year of hard lobbying, the Friends of Samuel Smith came one step closer to their dream of having East Lyme buy the historic Samuel Smith House last night. The East Lyme Board of Selectmen voted 5 to 1 in favor of purchasing the house for $425,000 using money from the town's non-recurring capital fund.
For a long time the board of selectmen had been evenly split on the issue of whether the town should buy the 300-year-old farmhouse. At last night's meeting, board members said the impassioned efforts and hard work of volunteers who want to turn it into a museum ultimately won them over.
It was a deal brokered by First Selectman Paul Formica with the Niantic Sportsmen's Club, however, that convinced a few of the last holdouts to finally pull the trigger and vote for it.
The Niantic Sportsmen's Club's members have agreed to pay $125,000 for 9 1/2 acres of the 17-acre property to preserve it as open space.
"I was very much on the fence," said East Lyme Deputy First Selectman Mark Nickerson. "The Sportsmen's Club coming through tipped me."
For the Niantic Sportsmen's Club, which owns 300 acres off Plants Dam Road, this is enlightened self-interest. Since its founding in 1954, the club has fought numerous legal battles with neighbors who'd rather not have a shooting range in their backyard.
As Club President Matthew Fleisher sees it, buying the property and ensuring it is never developed is a surefire way to head off potential problems. If he had the cash, Fleisher said, he'd buy the entire property now. As it is, he's willing to go halves on the land and would like the right of first refusal should the entire property become available at some point in the future.
"For us, it's life insurance," said Fleisher.
Sounding the Starting Gun
Last night was the first time the recently-formed Friends of Samuel Smith organization heard all the details of this proposed public/private partnership. But a few of the group's members weren't happy to hear they could be losing land they had hoped to use for parking, gardens and possibly even bee keeping.
Having set their sights on the entire property, some members of the volunteer organization suggested reducing the amount of land the Sportsman's Club would buy to 5 to 6 acres to allow them to go forward with their five-year plan for the property.
With an agreed upon price of $13,150 per acre (which is what the town paid to buy the open space at Darrow Pond) that would bring the club's contribution toward the asking price down to $78,950.
East Lyme Selectwoman Holly Cheeseman, who was the one member of the board who voted against buying the property, said that as the Friends of Samuel Smith had no "financial skin in the game," they were really in no position to dictate terms of the agreement.
The Board of Selectmen agreed they would rather see the Sportsmen's Club purchase half the land. Formica suggested that the Friends of Samuel Smith and the Sportmen's Club meet on Monday to hash out an agreement that could give the soon-to-be-formed nonprofit the right to use the land in a way that might work to everyone's advantage.
In the meantime, the motion for the town to appropriate $425,000 to buy the property, with the understanding that the Sportsman's Club will buy some portion of it, was passed by the Board of Selectmen.
The proposal now goes to the Board of Finance, which will likely meet next week to vote on the deal. If the board approves it, the ultimate decision will rest with East Lyme voters. The Board of Selectmen scheduled a Special Town Meeting on October 3 to vote on a special appropriation to buy the Samuel Smith House.
Although the town routinely schedules Special Town Meetings to deal with special appropriations, often for much greater amounts than this proposal calls for, East Lyme resident John Drabik suggested that the issue ought to be decided by referendum.
To make that happen at this point, however, would require a petition. To hold a referendum, as opposed to voting in a special town meeting, would cost the town several thousand dollars and the resulting delay would also cost valuable time.
Time is Money
Luane Lange, who has been helping the Friends of Samuel Smith become a nonprofit organization and who is working on a grant application to secure state funding to help pay for the property, said the deadline to apply for an acquisition grant from the state is rapidly approaching.
Although no grant is ever guaranteed, a state matching grant is available to towns to help purchase historic properties. The deadline for the grant, which would amount to $175,000, is October 26.
The only entities that can apply for the grant are nonprofits that have been established for three years—which is a criteria the Friends of Samuel Smith can't meet as the group is not yet established as an official nonprofit organization—or municipalities that want to buy historic properties for preservation purposes.
If East Lyme buys the Samuel Smith House it would qualify for the grant and, based on her meetings with the granting agency, Lange said the town stands a very good chance of getting it because no one else has even applied.
East Lyme's non-recurring capital fund has about $1 million in it, Formica said, so the town has the money to buy the property outright for cash. With the Niantic Sportsmen's Club contributing $125,000 for 9.5 acres and with a grant for $175,000, the ultimate cost to taxpayers would be brought down to $125,000.
"I'm in favor of the $125,000," said Nickerson, who was the swing vote on the board going into the meeting. "When all is said and done, the town is going to buy a museum. That's good value."
For that to happen, however, the sale has to be finalized, the board of finance has to approve it, and voters have to give it the thumbs up. And the clock is ticking on that grant application.