With the state currently at work on its 10-year management plan for the forest, now might be an ideal time for Yates' group to offer input, although much of the job is already complete and was performed by a consulting company paid by Aquarion Co.
Also, unlike neighboring states, Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection doesn't require public hearings or comment for adopting such plans regarding any of its conservation lands.
Moreover, the three-person committee that manages the Centennial forest doesn't consider itself a "public agency" as defined by open meeting laws, and its proceedings are therefore effectively closed to the public.
Its currently contemplated management plan is said to focus largely on improving the health of the forest through selective tree cutting and also by reducing its deer population.
So from a practical and public standpoint, little has changed since the state's $90 million transaction with Aquarion. One might reasonably wonder, therefore, why the purchase was made at all.
Just prior to the deal, negotiated largely under the administration of the disgraced Gov. John G. Rowlandand signed by Gov. Jodi Rell, the New Haven-based Connecticut Fund for the Environment reportedly pressed for the creation of a public water authority to take over Aquarion's operations.
It suggested that Aquarion's parent company at the time, British-based Kelda Group, was poised to sell 10,000 acres for development. It further suggested that a government-owned utility could offer lower rates.
Naturally, the prospect of getting "nationalized" by the state of Connecticut was unattractive to Aquarion, which was booking net profits of about $20 million annually at the time, on revenue of more than $100 million, according to public filings.
In response Aquarion argued in part that a government take-over would result in the loss of property-tax revenue flowing from its watershed lands to municipal governments. Aquarion also said it had "no plans to sell off large tracts of property." Specifically, it planned "to sell only 1,600 acres, not 10,000 acres as Connecticut Fund for the Environment claims."
But this history is perhaps just water over the dam. Connecticut Fund for the Environment didn't respond to a recent request for comment.
Chris Martin, Connecticut's Director of Forestry, says that in retrospect, what the state got in return for its $90 million is "the ironclad assurance" that the properties will never be developed.
Martin, who spent 13 years working as a forester for Aquarion, and later for the State of Maine before taking a job with Connecticut about four years ago, adds that high real-estate values might have pressured Aquarion, which is now owned by an investment consortium headed by Australia-based Macquarie Group.
"There was always the potential they could have taken a reservoir off line and develop it," Martin says of his former employer. "Could that economic model at some point have made sense for them? I'd say it was possible."
Currently, even to locate most of this far-flung and highly fragmented acreage of the Centennial Watershed State Forest requires the talents of Sherlock Holmes — or at least a very minimally trained real estate appraiser. To take but one small area as an example, in Stamford and New Canaan, more than two dozen separate state parcels — ranging up to 16 acres — centered near the North Stamford and Laurel reservoirs belong to the state forest amid a virtual wilderness of one-and two-acre McMansion subdivisions. Signs on these properties today indicate they are water-company land and off-limits to trespassing.
The state's web page devoted to the Centennial Watershed State Forest inaccurately implies the property is limited to two of its largest blocks; one extending about five miles along the Saugatuck Reservoir in Redding and Weston, and another block extending for a similar length along the Aspetuck River mostly in Easton. The web page makes no mention of vast and fragmentary holdings in the other 25 relevant towns.
The only ready means of learning where most of these state-owned lands actually lie is via maps provided by a web site operated by the University of Connecticut in an affiliation with the state DEEP, called Connecticut Environmental Conditions Online.
The access potential for many such fragments, sometimes as small as a few acres, may be near nil. "But they serve a nice, microcosmic purpose," Martin says. "An open space has value in itself. If it's near a brook or a stream, it offers a small amount of protection" to the watershed.
Public access on the forest's 15,500 acres is limited to two single trails on the two property blocks shown on the state's web page; a 6.5-mile trail that rarely strays more than 100 feet from a state highway near the Saugatuck Reservoir, as well as a 5.5-mile trail near the Aspetuck Reservoir.
The Saugatuck trail was developed by Aquarion prior to the state purchase, while the Aspetuck trail has been developed more recently. A path connecting these two trails is being built by the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association and is expected to open within a year.
All of the forest continues to be patrolled by a private security force employed by Aquarion and granted full law-enforcement authority by the state.
Walking on the two open trails requires a permit issued at no cost by Aquarion. The company charges visitors $25 for annual fishing permits, keeping the revenue to defray the cost of its security force.
Aquarion watershed manager Leendert DeJonge, who represents his Australian-based employer on the forest's management committee, declines to say how many Aquarion employees are officially empowered as Connecticut law enforcement officers. Yet DeJonge warns that violators of forest rules can be easily subject to criminal trespassing charges.
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