A close friend of President George W. Bush suffers a major setback in his effort to convert pristine forest in Northwest Connecticut into a luxury golf course.
If the state Department of Environmental Protection stands by its decision Monday denying two crucial permits to the controversial Yale Farm Golf Club development in Northwest Connecticut, the $22 million project is dead in the water.The DEP issued a tentative denial of Yale Farm’s application for a water quality permit and a water diversion permit. The developer failed to meet the state’s federally approved water quality standards and provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, according to the denial.The project now enters a public comment period until Sept. 17. The Yale Farm application proposed construction of a private 18-hole world class championship golf course, a clubhouse, guest accommodations, and year round recreation facilities on 780 acres of farmland, forests, and pristine wetlands spanning Norfolk and Canaan. Membership fees were slated in the $150,000 to $250,000 range.The original application also included up to 61 luxury houses, but the developers withdrew the houses after being told they would have to submit fully developed plans. They later told local commissions that houses “may or may not” be developed at a later date.The main investor in the project is developer Roland Betts, a high-powered friend and former business partner of President George W. Bush. Betts has spent an estimated $2.5 million in development costs since introducing the proposal to the local communities three years ago.His co-developers are project manager David Tewksbury, and Slade Mead, one of the three sons of Norfolk’s Mead family who inherited the 780-acre property after their parents died a few years ago.At one point during the contentious public hearing process, Mead said he would divide up the property and sell it for multiple housing developments if the opponents stopped the golf course. With property values in the Northwest Corner rising rapidly, the developers would likely reap a tidy profit from residential development. Neither Betts nor Tewksbury could be reached for comment Monday, and their attorney Peter Herbst did not respond to an email seeking comment about future plans.Environmental organizations hailed The DEP’S decision. “The DEP has done a phenomenal job of poring over this application and spent much time with the applicant and also in recognizing the importance of this region,” said Lynn Werner, executive director of the Housatonic Valley Association.“We simply don’t have enough information. We were concerned about the extraction of water as it would affect the headwater streams. One of the reasons we’re losing our biodiversity is because we’re doing things without knowing the impact,” Werner said.Kirt Mayland, the director of Trout Unlimited’s New England Office of the Eastern Water Project, said he gives “full credit” to the DEP staff.“They knew what the problems were and they stuck to their guns and made a well thought out, smart decision,” Mayland said.The nonprofit fishing and environmental organization was most concerned about maintaining the integrity of Hollow Brook, a Class A watercourse that’s clean enough to drink and is home to a thriving, reproducing population of native brook trout.“The water is pristine and cold and conditions are right for the fragile brook trout to live in. It’s an indicator species and if you have a viable reproducing population, it’s extremely valuable,” Mayland said.The DEP “almost never” reverses a tentative denial of an application, Mayland said.The proposed decision specifically denies permission to withdraw a total maximum of 289,440 gallons of groundwater per day from four bedrock wells. The water would be discharged into an irrigation pond to water the golf course, and into Hollow Brook to supplement flows if the water withdrawals reduced stream water levels.Additionally, the proposed decision denies permission to withdraw up to 7,500 gallons of groundwater from three other bedrock wells for potable water supply, to fill 2.88 acres of wetlands, and to clear vegetation from an additional 2.55 acres.In reviewing the developer’s aquifer tests for irrigation wells, the DEP concluded that test data is not sufficient to determine “with an acceptable degree of certainty” the effect that groundwater pumping may have on wetlands, watercourses, and existing wells. The tests also raised concerns about the long term yield of water at two of the wells.Reduced and warmer water in the streams and runoff from the development and operation of the golf course would all negatively affect the cold water fish populations, Ruzicka said.“The full extent of the impacts have not been adequately quantified, characterized and evaluated,” Denise Ruzicka, director of the Inland Water Resources Division, wrote in the tentative determination.Ruzicka said the DEP’s experience with other golf courses around the state shows that the minimum amount of water needed to support an 18-hole golf course exceeds 150,000 gallons a day, and usually exceeds 250,000 gallons a day.The data provided does not support the claim that the project can operate “without adversely affecting the ground water aquifer’s ability to provide the level of stream flow necessary to maintain the biological, chemical, and physical integrity of the aquatic resources currently found in Hollow Brook and Ginger Creek,” Ruzicka said.The project’s opponents hailed the DEP decision as a victory, but braced for a continuation of the battle.Vint Lawrence, the president of Norfolk’s Coalition for Sound Growth, a grassroots citizens group that sprang up to oppose the golf club project, said the tentative ruling vindicated the group’s efforts.“It is, at the very least, a most gratifying vindication of what the coalition has argued for the last three years- that the science and the process surrounding the application were deeply flawed. But it would be the height of arrogant foolishness for us to start crowing at this time. The applicant presumably has many legal options open to him and we must assume that he will use them all. This is far from over,” Lawrence said.Scott Asen, an abutting landowner to Yale Farm, applauded the DEP decision with reservations. Asen and two other landowners co-founded the Canaan Conservation Coalition, an intervener in the regulatory proceedings.“We think it’s a step in the right direction. DEP has now joined a list of powerful groups, including the EPA, Trout Unlimited, the Housatonic Valley Association and others, all of which expressed opinions that this project would have a profound impact on the environment and that and that the land under consideration deserves conservation protection,” Asen said.More than a year ago, Asen offered a total of $9 million in cash and conservation restriction benefits to purchase the land, but Betts turned down the offer.“We will continue to make every effort to make sure the true potential impacts of the project are clearly understood and we continue to hope the increasingly widespread concern demonstrated during the debate will ultimately lead to a conservation solution for the Mead brothers and the Yale Farm property,” Asen said.While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the ultimate permitting authority for the project, it cannot go forward without DEP approval of the water quality and water diversion permits, which are required under the federal Clean Water Act.Both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have recommended denying the application. The agencies said the plan has the potential to damage fish and wildlife in the stream and riparian corridor, and violates the federal Clean Water Act- even without the DEP denial of the water quality and diversion permits. The act prohibits wetlands and watercourse disturbance if there is a “practicable” and less environmentally damaging alternative.Monday’s denial was not the first reversal for the massive development
project. Developers submitted he application to the planning and zoning commissions and wetlands agencies in both towns. Those land use bodies approved the applications.But the Canaan Conservation Coalition appealed all four decisions, while the developer appealed the approval by Norfolk’s Planning & Zoning Commission, in an attempt to try to reduce some of the dozens of conditions that agency had imposed it its approval.A Litchfield Superior Court judge denied two of the coalition’s appeals, and a decision on the Norfolk planning commission appeal is pending. But the court upheld the coalition’s appeal of the decision issued Canaan’s wetlands agency, ruling that the agency had abdicated its responsibility because it approved the application without knowing where a mitigation pond would be located.The developer submitted a revised application indicating the location of the mitigation pond earlier this year, but failed to address the state and federal agencies’ other concern- the location of two of the golf holes in and around Hollow Brook. During the public hearing process, the developers and golf course architect told commissioners that the golf course had been deliberately designed in and around the wetlands and watercourses because of the area’s aesthetic qualities.Developers withdrew the application in June when the Army Corps told them to move the two holes out of the area. A third revised application was submitted to Canaan wetlands agency in early August. A public hearing on the revised application is scheduled to begin Sept. 7 at town hall at 7 p.m.The DEP denial may render the public hearing moot, but wetlands Chairman Fred Ruggles said as of the moment, the hearing will continue.“Until they withdraw their application, we will consider it,” Ruggles said.Written comments may be sent to Doug Hoskins, Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Water Management, Inland Water Resources, 79 Elm Street, Hartford, CT 06016-5127. A public hearing will take place at a time and place to be announced.