With the continuation of the public hearing on the Pheeny’s Island team building camp looming, residents of Norton are drawing the line of support and opposition.
The island is currently up for sale by a private owner who is in talks with Ken Leavitt, former owner of the Powder Ridge Ski Resort. Leavitt’s vision is to create a team building adventure camp on the 5.3 acres available on island with rope bridge courses, zip lines and other challenges.
“We are promoting the experience of nature,” he said.
To try and ease some concerns brought up by citizens, Leavitt answered the following questions:
How will Norton benefit from this? Leavitt said that the camp would provide about 30 jobs in the first year. Twenty of those positions would be held by guides trained to oversee the safety of visitors and belaying the climbers. Others will work in the office, drive the Jon boats or be be trained for the expedition portion of the experience.
The goal is to also give people a fun way to get exercise. Since the camp will focus on the natural aspect, Leavitt also hopes to get historical and environmental agencies involved to inform the public of their surroundings. Finally, Norton will see some revenue.
“On the island, when we build the building there, when we build the course, that gets taxed,” Leavitt said.
How will you respond in emergency situations? “The accident record for this kind of thing are minimal,” Leavitt said. “But you never know.”
He said a ferry will be designated for emergencies to transport people back to the mainland or safety officials to the island. They will also be looking to hire people with a safety background, such as firefighters looking for a second job.
“We are very concerned about safety,” Leavitt said.
Will the project stop here, or will anything be added in the future? Leavitt said this will strictly be a rope park. No water slides will be added.
How will the sewerage be dealt with? According to Leavitt, the camp will have a state-of-the-art sewerage treatment called composting technology by Clivus Multrum.
“They use natural process to render this waste material to be regenerated into soil.”
How will people be kept off the island during off hours? There may be guides staying overnight on the island or a security guard. There will also be cameras, and the ladders to the platforms will be taken down at night.
Can't you just go somewhere else in Norton? "I just haven't seen another place," Leavitt said. The island has all the elements he wants for the camp, including the space, trees and an overall natural feel.
What happened with Powder Ridge Ski Resort? “The ski industry is a very tough industry. It’s been very tough for a long time because you’ve got incredible seasonality,” said Leavitt. So he came up with an idea to closely couple the ski aspect with a natural water park integrating the ski hills and topography at Powder Ridge to utilize more seasons.
“We could see by the numbers that the ski area was going to die the way it was. But with our plan, it had a chance,” he said, noting that he already had several successful technology ventures like CGX Corp. under his belt.
The state of Connecticut supported the water park plan, even giving a commitment to loan $2 million and a $500,000 sales and use tax exemption. Working with the town officials, Leavitt and his group got most of the permits needed and took their advice to buy the land to show his commitment. He bought the ski area and began operating it in 1996.
A group of people near the resort weren’t so supportive, however. They fought against the water park proposal, stopping it from being implemented. Though they couldn’t agree on what they wanted to do with the land, they agreed they did not want the ski resort or the water park in their backyard. One of these people became elected as the Board of Finance chairman.
Ten years later, the resort went bankrupt. The Board looked to buy the development rights to the property in 2006.
“There was very questionable practices that took place,” Leavitt said. “We signed a deal with the selectmen, but there was other dealings going on.”
The town independently appraised the property at $6.5 million. Leavitt’s appraiser felt it was $6.5 million as well.
“Somehow the town was able to acquire the property for about $2.5 million over 18 months,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt then sued Middlefield Holdings LLC in June of 2011.
So what’s next? Residents near the reservoir are not the only ones questioning this project.
“I have a whole host of concerns that are going to need to be addressed,” said Norton Fire Chief Paul Schleicher. “There will be up to 200 people on an island with no immediate access for us other than launching a boat, so when someone gets injured or something, It could be very time consuming, very costly.”
Chief Schleicher says that working with Mansfield to coordinate efforts poses as a potential problem as well. Island visitors will first be introduced to the park through a video at an office located at 888 S. Main St., Mansfield. They will then be ferried to the island from there.
“We got a real concern because the project is launching from Mansfield, so it’s two different communities being involved now,” he said. “It would be a little bit easier for me logistically to have everything based in Norton.”
Another worry is that police presence may be needed if unruly behavior occurs.
“We want to make sure the public is safe,” Schleicher said.
Since the island is up for sale by a private owner, selectmen say that there’s not much the townspeople can do to stop the sale, short of buying the island.
“It would be up to the taxpayers of Norton,” said Robert Kimball, noting that he is unsure how much the island would cost. One website puts it at $149,900. “If they really want to protect the quality of that island then they need to step up and figure out a way to purchase it. The town could use it, but we’d have to go for a short term loan or some kind of loan option and it would have to be approved at Town Meeting.”
But if that does not happen, other buyers may come along.
“We don’t know what’s up the pike next,” said selectwoman Mary Steele.
“Someone could buy it, cut down all the trees and put up a house,” added Kimball.
While the next Conservation Commission meeting must begin in Town Hall, the hearing will resume at the library March 12 at a time to be announced.