Hugh McQuaid photo

The Senate voted 31 to 5 in favor of the property conveyance bill which included the controversial Haddam land swap after just two hours of debate, but just five hours before the end of the legislative session. It now goes to the House where the state representative who represents the town of Haddam is expected to oppose it.

Opponents of the land swap — including environmentalists and freshman Rep. Philip Miller, D-Essex — say the 17-acre parcel was meant to be open space. Miller even went so far as to suggest to a reporter that the land was conserved, and that swapping previously conserved land for development will set a bad precedent.

During the debate on the Senate floor supporters of the swap say the 17-acre parcel in question was formerly a sand pit originally zoned for industrial use.

The parcel is not pristine and it does not sit on the riverfront as some opponents of the deal would have people believe, Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said.

He said he remembers when the top priority for environmentalists in the state was getting rid of sulfur dioxide from coal powered generators and reducing greenhouse gasses. He was disappointed this has come to top their list of priorities.

“Environmentally this makes a tremendous amount of sense,“ Williams said. “Rather than leave that as a partial wasteland in the midst of these industrial and commercial sites, next to the railroad tracks, why not have that serve the community in its highest and best use. Why not transform that so it can be used by folks in a way that is complimentary?“

Martin Mador, legislative chair of the Sierra Club, said the environmental community never told Williams the 17 acres was pristine, but he conceded the senator could have received some letters based on the misinformation.

“It’s not about the relative merits and the two pieces of property,” Mador said after the vote. “It’s all about the process of figuring this out. It’s about preserving the public’s faith.”

He said he would like to see the DEP review the swap.

Republican lawmakers were concerned the Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty refused to weigh in on the issue and give them some guidance.

“I’m left wanting because we have a governor who’s silent, but more distressing we have a Commissioner of Environmental Protection who’s silent,” said Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen. “This governor has not been shy to interject himself into matters large and small…The governor’s silence on this issue is deafening.”

Esty declined to offer an opinion on the matter claiming it’s not within his purview.

That alone caused the handful of Republicans to vote against the bill.

Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney said perception becomes reality and he doesn’t know what to believe because he also has people telling him this land is pristine and should be preserved.

“I don’t know that that’s true,“ said McKinney. “But that’s part of what we’re dealing with here. They need to tell us whether or not it’s okay to get rid of it and they [DEP] won’t do that.”

Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, who co-chairs the Environment Committee, said he wasn’t convinced the legislature shouldn’t wait on the DEP Commissioner to weigh in on the issue. He introduced an amendment which would have required Esty to review the swap not later than February 2012.

“I compliment our Senator on being a bulldog. She’s going after this as a great economic opportunity, but I hope the circle here will think about the bigger picture,” said Meyer.

If the House passes the bill and the governor signs it the land will be conveyed to Riverhouse Properties Inc. who is planning to build a hotel and a mix of shopping areas on the 17-acre parcel.

Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, said the 87 acres the state will receive is contiguous with Connecticut’s second largest state forest. She said she has difficulty understanding why some residents oppose the project because the developer has promised to clean up the 17-acres, especially the groundwater.

She said she sees the swap as an opportunity to leverage 17 isolate acres in a developed area for 87 pristine acres adjacent to a state forest.