From: Rinker Buck, The Hartford Courant
Published August 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Golf Course Proposal Hits Bump

In a major setback for one of America's blue-chip developers, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection filed a tentative determination on Monday to deny the water permits needed for the controversial Yale Farm Golf Course in Litchfield County.


Roland W. Betts, a close personal friend and former business associate of President Bush, has spent the past four years attempting to secure permits for a championship, 18-hole course on the grounds of a historic, 780-acre estate in Norfolk and North Canaan. The property straddles two crucial brooks feeding the Housatonic River watershed and scenic Campbell Falls State Park.


A well-financed group of abutting landowners and a growing coalition of environmental groups have marshaled a host of scientific studies against the project and battled the Yale Farm developers before regulatory agencies and in the courts. This effort seems to have convinced increasingly skeptical state and federal regulators that too many questions remain about the golf course's effect on a sensitive rural area and its water supply.


In August 2004, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, saying that 10 of Betts' 18 holes would directly affect wetlands on the Yale Farm property, recommended that his permit be denied. A Litchfield County Superior Court judge also invalidated the permits Betts received from the North Canaan Inland Wetlands Conservation Commission over the location of a mitigation pond.


Monday's decision by the DEP's Inland Water Resources Division focused on two permits -- one for water quality and one for water diversion -- that the developers must obtain in order to receive ultimate permission to build from the federal Army Corps of Engineers. In recommending denial of the permits, the DEP said that Betts' development team has failed to produce sufficient data about the 300,000 gallons of water per day that they want to withdraw from underground aquifers. In Monday's decision, and in earlier documents, the DEP has cited concerns about permanent harm to the overall watershed, the effect on neighboring wells and nearby Campbell Falls State Park, and possible damage to native brook trout in Hollow Brook, which empties into two rivers crucial to the Housatonic River fishery, the Whiting and the Blackberry.


The Yale Farm development group now has 30 days during a "notice and comment" period to attempt to reverse the state's tentative determination; the developers also could pursue the option of conducting the additional tests that the state has requested and then resubmitting their application. But land-use lawyers familiar with the Yale Farm controversy say that reversing a DEP tentative determination is almost impossible and could require several years' more work for the developer.


Betts already has been forced to redesign or relocate several holes in response to environmentalists' and regulators' concerns, but Monday's decision focused on the large drawdown of water that the developers insist they need for the course. Most of the Yale Farm property rests on a high "watershed area" which can be replenished only by rain. Water experts hired by opponents of the project presented studies showing that withdrawing 300,000 gallons a day could deplete the bedrock aquifers beneath the farm, which could severely affect the entire area during a drought year. The water studies produced by the Yale Farm developers were criticized on several technical grounds and the DEP concluded that additional requests for information had not been met by the developer.


"This has been an excruciating process lasting several years during which expert after expert has discussed the impacts of a water drawdown this large," said R. Bartley Halloran, a Farmington attorney representing three North Canaan neighbors of the proposed golf course. "It's very hard to change conclusions after this tough a review of the science."


The environmental critics of the golf course focused on issues beyond concern for native trout in Hollow Brook and effect on wells downstream of the project. They said the sloping and immense earth-grading required by the course would constrict stream flow levels and thus the rivers below the farm, an area of increasing concern as geologists and land-use experts begin to assess the effect of development on wetland areas.


"I deal with all the big environmental agencies in New England, and the tendency is to bow to industry and development pressures on stream flow and water resource issues," said Kirt Mayland, director of the New England office for Trout Unlimited, which has been active in opposing the Yale Farm project. "The Connecticut DEP clearly made its decision based on objective science."


Neither Betts nor the project manager for the golf course could be reached for comment Monday. Yale Farm's battery of environmental engineers, lawyers and golf course designers are not allowed by the developer to speak with reporters.


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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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