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Town Officals Try To Develop a Public Wetlands

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It would appear that for a 12-plus-acre Litchfield land parcel, now planned for eight low-income housing units, town selectmen and lawyers had plenty of concern for and desire to assist the potential developer, Litchfield Housing Trust. In fact, they had so much concern that they went to the State General Assembly to pass a law, supposedly curing their illegal turnover of the townspeople's property.

This land is located on Torrington Road near the Friendship Baptist Church, and is at least eighty percent inland wetlands. Years earlier, town selectmen had inappropriately proposed locating Litchfield Superior Court there.

As of now this second development proposal has been in the works for eight years, and still it has not been approved for construction.

Some of that time was expended while both the State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers were called in by town officials, after public complaints, to specify what needed to be done to protect the wetlands and its rare Pale Green Orchid plant.

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Even more time was consumed while members the public challenged the illegal transfer of the property from the town to the Housing Trust. And, many members of the public challenging it did not know about the specifics of the controversial transfer until December 2012, four and a half years after the town selectmen's hearing supposedly approving it legally.

Since then, the challengers have unsuccessfully sought revert the land's ownership to the public while simultaneously complaining that the proposed development should not be built in such a large a wetlands.

It was back in January 2008 that town officials had illegally approved the public land's transfer before they sought to obtain the public's legally needed approval vote. The law, Sec. 7-163e., says: "The board of selectmen shall conduct a public hearing on the sale, lease or transfer of real property owned by the municipality prior to final approval of such sale, lease or transfer." Indeed, the selectmen transferred the property to Litchfield Housing Trust that January in a quit claim without first gaining legal approval from town voters.

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Those responsible for this illegal transfer are First Selectman Paul, Town Attorney Michael Rybak, and the Board of Selectmen. Along with Paul, Rybak signed a town quit-claim deed, giving it without cost to Housing Trust, his long-time client. But, said Ryback, during these crucial actions, he was not yet retained by the Housing Trust to represent them.

Both of Paul and Rybak conceded they were initially unaware of the then relatively "new law," quoted in part directly above. It requires notice to all town voters and a property sign posting so residents have an opportunity to vote on the transfer or sale of that public property.

With Rybak's recommendation, selectmen voted approval of the property transfer on January 15, 2008, and yet it wasn't until three months later that First Selectman Paul and his fellow selectmen claimed a public- hearing vote by residents at a selectmen's meeting had legally approved it.

But, after constant public challenges of the legality of that vote, Paul then sought to correct it in a highly unusual and questionable manner. In July 2013, over five years after that improper public hearing vote, he brought it to the Connecticut General Assembly to validate it. Paul got what he wanted through his Republican first selectman predecessor, State Rep. Craig Miner. Miner drafted supposed validating legislation for that illegal land transfer and got it approved by the legislature.

Miner said of the legal validation solution, "we do every year for a host of things." He added, "It runs for an array of reasons." In this case, he said, the selectmen gave the town voters the necessary hearing and vote, but simply missed a posted public notice sign on the property and one of the notices out of two for a public hearing. However, he explained, the public received the necessary opportunity to vote on the property transfer. Miner did not explain, however, how the selectmen could have transferred the property from the public to the Housing Trust well before the public had any opportunity to know about it or approve it. How can anyone transfer land without the owner's approval?

Nevertheless, Miner claimed, the public received the necessary opportunity to vote on the property transfer and did so. He also did not explain, however, how the selectmen, Paul and Rybak, could have transferred the property from the public to the Housing Trust well before the public had the necessary legal opportunity to approve it.

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Today the Board of Selectmen is still embroiled in that prolonged argument with townspeople about who actually and legally owns the Torrington Road property and whether the wetlands on the property will be polluted and destroyed, at least in part, by the development.

Since Rybak has represented the Housing Trust off and on for years, his newest representation of them for this very development raises conflict-of-interest questions. Paul's handling of the case shows he leaned heavily in favor of the property transfer to the housing trust, and largely overlooked the public's concerns about potential wetlands' harm and getting them a proper vote for the transfer to the Housing Trust.

In Rybak's case, the Connecticut Rules of Professional Conduct governing lawyers say: "a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if: the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibilities to another client."

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Thomas D. Williams, a freelance writer, worked at The Hartford Courant for almost 40 years before retiring in November 2005 to become an investigative freelancer on Internet news sites. He has written a unique nature book, The Spirits of Birds, (more...)
 

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