AVON, Conn. - There’s nothing like a roomful of determined citizens to make a town’s zoning board take notice.
That’s especially the case when the issue at hand is the consolidation of golf course land and its partial conversion to real estate. At stake, beyond golf, are a quaint country road and the status of a hotly disputed real estate development slated for land currently zoned for agriculture, not housing. Small wonder that 150-200 people who would probably prefer to be at home are wiling to sit through public hearings that last three hours.
Welcome to Avon, a largely upscale, white-collar town of 18,300 people in Connecticut's Farmington River Valley, 15 miles west of downtown, Hartford. The town's mean household income of $186,000 places it well above the national average. Avon is also slightly more Republican by enrollment and voting than Democratic. As with any suburban town, there are developmental pressures, not only with heavy commercial growth through the center of town along Rte. 44 but also in the surrounding communities. That growth has been steadily chipping away at open space, challenging a long-held notion of Avon as a quaint New England town.
Those feelings have come to the fore of late in a series of town meetings before the Wetlands Commission and, most recently, Town Planning and Zoning. At the center of the debate is proposed conversion of nine holes of the privately-owned daily-fee Blue Fox Run Golf Club. The 27-hole layout straddles the Farmington River, and a land development team is trying to get permission to rezone a 37.2-acre parcel to be able to build 95 single-family units in a common-ownership community, plus three free-standing homes.
Blue Fox Run, opened in 1974 as an 18-hole daily fee, was expanded to 27 holes by architect Stephen Kay. Green fees are posted at $40 for walking or $49 with cart on weekdays and $55 on weekends. If plans for the development proceed, the club’s Blue Nine would remain intact while Kay would design a composite nine out of the existing Red and White Nines, with the freed-up land used for home sites.
Not so fast, says Nod Road Preservation, Inc., a community-based opposition group. This citizens action group arose in response to plans for the development by The Keystone Companies, LLC and Sunlight Construction Industries.
Nod Road Preservation, Inc. was co-founded two years ago by two longtime Avon residents who live along Nod Road in Avon. Chris Carville is a farmer whose family-ties to the CF Woodford Farm date to 1666; they also run the popular Pickin Patch, a farm produce stand abutting the golf course. Robin Baran is a stay-at-home mom who is passionate about the environment. For both of them, there is their first foray into politics at any level. Now they are knee-deep in meetings, gathering petitioners, attending public hearings, organizing door-to-door and raising money to hire an attorney and expert witnesses to counter the army of consultants assembled by the applicants. Nod Road’s Preservation motto is “Save Nod Road.” The would-be developers have countered with “Build to Preserve.”
P. Anthony Giorgio, managing director of the Keystone Companies, Inc. is no newcomer to real estate and commercial development, with many area projects under his belt. He says as part of any plan he’s worked out a careful budget and timeline so he can assemble the needed expertise, map progress and deadlines, follow through with permits and hearings and anticipate budgets.
Giorgio says he was “flabbergasted when we ran into this juggernaut of opposition.” Dealing with it has not been easy, or cheap. Each two- or three-hour commission meeting costs him “$10,000-$15,000” in consultants' costs just to have them there ready to answer questions. He’s already spent three times more than he initially budgeted. But he figures with home sites likely to sell in the $400,000-$600,000 range, the project can still cost out.
He and his team need to convince Avon’s Planning and Zoning Commission to change the designation on a crucial 37.2-acre plot from agricultural and to residential. The proposed site occupies a floodplain, which means that even if a zoning variance is granted, all residential areas will have to be built up above the floodplain level.
In exchange for the variance, Giorgio and his partners vow to designate the rest of the property – all 187 acres outside the planned residential community – as a conservation easement. But attorney Brian Smith, representing Nod Rod Preservation, responds to this by claiming that there is a simpler way to keep the space open: “Deny the application,” he told the commission.
Historic Nod Road is three miles long from north to south, with one of the country’s oldest continuously operated restaurants (since 1757) at one end and the state’s largest tree, the Pinchot Sycamore – with a trunk 28 feet in circumference and a canopy 121 feet across - at the other. The tree is named for native-born Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), the first chief of the U.S. Forestry Service.
Neither landmark – the restaurant or tree - is threatened by the project, but opponents fear that the rustic quality of the country road these two sites mark will be compromised with subsequent increases in traffic.
If so, the culprit won’t just be the Blue Fox Run development. The entire Farmington Valley is going through expansion – some 2,500 homesites poised for development or in construction elsewhere along a surrounding 15-mile stretch. Traffic studies undertaken by the developers acknowledge backups already on a major east-west thoroughfare at the south end of Nod Rod by Blue Fox Run. All of that additional development will simply add to the regional burden. Given popular apps like Waze that steer traffic toward more open streets, Nod Road is likely to see a considerable increase as drivers divert from main paths. That means additional traffic burdens for Nod Road, and the likelihood in the future of the road of Nod Road getting straightened and widened.
Nod Road is dotted with open farmland,. There are two real estate communities on the east side, under the slope of Talcott Mountain. Just north of Blue Fox Run was an another golf course, Tower Ridge Country Club, which closed at the beginning of 2019 and may also be the site of future development.
Hanging over the entire proceedings is the threat – tacit or explicit – that if the zoning application is denied, a developer could try to get the land designated by the state under existing provision to declare the land fit for affordable housing, in which case the resulting density would far exceed what is currently proposed. Giorgio says he would "probably not try such a maneuver. But another developer could,” he added.
For now, Blue Fox Run provides modest golf to a public clientele. It also provides habitat for birds and mammals as well as serving as a site for biologically diverse wetlands. In effect, it functions as adapted open space. The issue now is how valuable that open space is, how much of it can be preserved and who pays for it. Even maintaining the golf course as a viable entity in the highly competitive metropolitan Hartford market will take millions of dollars of infrastructure investment.