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Guilford: 375 and Counting

On September 29, 375 years ago, a group of newly arrived Puritans, led by the Rev. Henry Whitfield, sat down in a barn near the Quinnipiac River with the local real estate lady named Shaumpishuh for what was undoubtedly the first Guilford real estate closing. The agreed upon purchase price for “all the lands lying between the Kuttawoo (East River) and Oiockcommock (Stony Creek)” was “12 coates, 12 fathom of wampum, 12 glasses, 12 payer of shoes, 12 hatchetts …” and some other clothes and tools. Given what a house costs on Sachem’s Head today, this could be considered a bargain.

The truth is that, if pressed, the Menunkatucks would have paid Henry to move in because they were about to be overrun by raiding Mohawks and Pequots. They needed the protection. At the time of the deed signing, there were only about 12 families left. In any case, Shaumpishuh was clearly the first in a long line of savvy, astute shoreline real estate salespeople.

After being had by the locals, we could assume Henry was just another overzealous Puritan rube, but his Oxford education and sterling reputation seem to belie this notion. He was, according to a fellow churchman, “one of the wealthiest clergymen that came into Connecticut,” and he apparently knew his way around a sermon, as well. The infamous Cotton Mather wrote, “His delivery had in it a marvellous majesty and sanctity.” Henry was also a bit of a liberal. While his contemporaries in neighboring towns like New Haven and Old Saybrook were enacting strictly religious rules of governance based on biblical doctrine, Henry and his fellow settlers were embracing a more temporal philosophy based on English common law. Unlike his fellow pastors, Henry never insisted on being ordained as the Ruling Elder of his church or community. This may explain why the original residents of the “Plantation of Menunkatuck” were so eager to begin their own community rather than settle in New Haven.

Guilford High School 1891

According to history, even before the day the deed was executed, all the signers of the covenant
 moved to their new property and 
began work on the structures, including the famous Stone House,
 even though it was late in the plant
ing season. It can be reasonably 
inferred that Henry and his compa-triots were, at the very least, wary of
 being absorbed into the New Haven
 community whose laws they didn’t
 necessarily agree with. Also, the 
terms of the contract with the
 Menunkatucks provided generously 
for their protection and well-being,
 without the usual insistence on con
version. It seems clear Henry understood the plight of his native neighbors and brought some simple Christian charity to the arrangement.

From this modest beginning, the Plantation of Menunkatuck grew into a successful agrarian community. It was incorporated into the state as the Town of Guilford on September 8, 1665, and had all the growing pains of similar shoreline towns, but appeared to survive better than most. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, wrote this about early 19th century Guilford: “The people have retained, more than most others in this state, the ancient manners of New England colonists…. Lawsuits are so rare that no lawyer until lately has been able to acquire a living in this town.”

There are countless echoes of Whitfield’s practical, independent, and generous spirit in the annals of town history. And there are also echoes of the sense that it represents the shoreline in terms of its composition and issues. They include real estate prices, tax revenue, conservation issues, and education. Most Guilford residents received real estate reassessment notifications recently and may have been surprised to discover their homes had lost value. According to the town assessor, many factors were taken into account in assessing these reductions, including “improvements, damage due to force majeure, zoning changes, assessor appeals, etc.” But in the end, the determining factor was market value; in other words, how much someone wants to live here.

Obviously, the economic crisis of 2008 took its toll on home prices. After a discouraging few years, however, the real estate market does appear to be improving. Sotheby’s third-quarter report states “Sales flourished in the vast majority of our markets in third quarter of 2013. This is the fourth quarter of consistent growth, and all metrics support a market that is in full recovery mode.” It goes on to cite a 10% growth in sales in Guilford over the third quarter of last year. But, given Guilford has survived and flourished for 375 years, there has to be something more to the value of a home here than a simple assessment.

But, do these examples of historic real estate dealings add value to homes now, in the 375th year? A Sotheby’s real estate salesperson reported that, other than the actual price of the home, taxes, the school system, environmental issues, and “quality of life” are the major concerns of perspective shoreline buyers; concerns remarkably similar to our forefathers.

TAXES. First Selectman Joe Mazza’s primary focus when he came into office a few years ago was budgetary. “We had received a reduction in our bond rating because our undesignated fund balance was too low,” he said. One of the repercussions was increased borrowing costs for the reconstruction of the high school. During the first two years of Mazza’s administration, the town was able to more than double the money in the undesignated fund, which is like a town savings account.

“As a result,” Mazza said, “we will be applying for an improvement in our bond rating come spring.” When asked how he did it, he laughed and replied, simply, “Watching pennies.” He expressed his admiration for all the town departments that cooperated in the effort to cut or freeze budgets. “Everyone had to recognize that we are in a new economic climate, including the unions. And they did.” On a more positive note, Mazza expressed pride in the “improved business climate” in town. He justified this by describing a program he instituted where new and existing business owners are encouraged to bring their expansion plans to a weekly meeting of all the relevant town departments. During this meeting, the new expansion plans are scrutinized for possible pitfalls, and the owners are advised on ways to redress the problems before formal submission.

“They are coached through the process, so to speak, so we can help them mitigate problems before they require expensive solutions.”

He cited this group’s work with Safety Zone, Total Quality, and Brook & Whittle, three new businesses that decided to relocate all or parts of their operations to Guilford, in part because of the town’s helpful cooperation. Based on this information, new home buyers should be satisfied with the fiscal health of the town, and the relative equity of the tax burden.

EDUCATION. Guilford High School (GHS) is rated 23rd out of 196 high schools in the state based on student-to-teacher ratio and performance test scores. The district website reports, “Guilford students continue to achieve well above the State average on the Connecticut Mastery Test. In grade 8, Guilford’s scores exceed those in our Direct Reference Group, towns with like socio-economic characteristics.” Also, after a drawn out and sometimes contentious process, a new high school is being built on the site of the old one. This is probably good news to a family who is considering buying a home here, but here is some information that won’t appear on the webpage. High School Principal, Rick Misenti, is a robust and engaging booster of GHS academic
achievements. After seven years
 as principal, he says, “Our kids
 are performing at the highest 
level ever, but they have to get
 better to compete globally.”

Toward that end, he applied
 for a grant from the The Guil
ford Fund for Education to send 
three teachers to an Interna
tional Baccalaureate workshop 
in Florida that focused on math 
and science teaching skills used 
in the highest performing countries. “A classic example of the 
essential role the community plays in our success,” he added.

ENVIRONMENT. After Hurricane Sandy, everyone on the shoreline finally understood that the relationship with Long Island Sound was fundamentally changing. No one understands this change better than Guilford Town Environmental Planner, Kevin Magee. “Conservatively, we estimate the sea level will rise 2”–5” in the next 10 years, and up to 12” by 2050.” If you combine this statistic with storm surges similar to Sandy’s, you have a daunting problem facing homeowners who live in close proximity to the water.

The town board recently approved a Hazard Mitigation plan that features some road improvements, tree removal, and the possible dredging of the West River. All of these efforts are focused on alleviating the effects of coastal flooding. When asked which roads will be repaired first, Mr. Magee said, “Quarry Road now floods during almost every full moon.”

Obviously, the repairs are not solely related to storm surge. The thornier problem posed by the questionable long-term efficacy of waterfront real estate is addressed in a second, as yet unapproved, Coastal Resiliency plan. The specifics involve possible zoning changes, projected septic failure, and applying for FEMA grants to purchase at-risk property. When asked about reconstruction, Magee described the part of the Hazard Mitigation plan that “mandates enforcement of the FEMA elevation standards. This means if home repair after a storm costs more than 50% of the total home value, the home must be elevated above the FEMA flood specifications.”

Possible biblical disasters aside, Guilford has a bright future. When Mazza was asked to define the real value of a home in Guilford in one sentence, he said simply, “Quality of life.” He was referring, in part, to the Green, which floods during storms, but is one of the most beautiful town greens in Connecticut. Research revealed it also represents the deeper spirit of independence and generosity found throughout Guilford’s history. Bishop’s Orchards is another example. A family can experience getting lost in a hay bale maze during Halloween, along with the deeper connection to John Bishop who, with Chittenden, Leete, Dudley, Norton, and Whitfield, signed the original covenant of the Plantation of Menunkatuck.

Those last names live on. This is a profound connection that defines “quality of life” beyond the simple daily advantages. Henry Whitfield began a tradition of embracing humanist tolerance and diversity by turning a hostile wilderness into a home for the refugees from England as well as his Indian neighbors. Guilford residents have carried this tradition forward to the present day. Here is a quote from the Guilford 375th Anniversary webpage. It was written by an interracial lesbian couple. “In truth, we believed ourselves excluded from the joys of living in a small town. Traditionally, small towns are wary of outsiders, suspicious of change. Yet Guilford welcomed us, and gave us the single most cherished thing that a family can hope for: a warm and embracing home. Guilford resonates with our values at every level: strong education, historic preservation, beautiful landscape, and above all, civility…. We’re middle-aged broads, and what matters to us is not everybody looking and acting the same, but everybody treating their neighbors with respect.”

This letter probably won’t persuade the town assessor to increase the price of a home in Guilford, but it certainly increases the value.

 

 

 

 

Image Credits: Photo courtesy the Connecticut Office of Tourism, Photo courtesy Guilford Free Library Historical Room

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