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Triumph of the Trees

Ignoring the supreme irony of his choice, the North Carolina developer who first conceived replacing the last great coastal forest between New York and Boston with 200 or so high-end homes and a golf course named his proposed enclave for the elite “The Preserve.” Some people still call it that. The Trust for Public Land (www.tpl.org), the nonprofit that on April 30, 2015 announced finalization the real-estate deal that keeps the woodland forever wild under conservation easements, prefers its other name – the 1,000-acre forest.

Actually a tad under 1,000 acres, the forest lies mostly in Old Saybrook, edging as well into Essex, with a smidgeon in Westbrook. That it will remain wild may be one of the few positive byproducts of the 2007-2008 financial crash. Wall Street financial services giant Lehman Brothers, which had foreclosed on the original developer in 2002 and taken over the project, went kaput itself, even as percolation tests had started amidst the trees. Such was the scope of the proposed development that, if completed, it would have altered the character of Coastal Connecticut’s heartland, the Valley-Shore region around the estuarine Connecticut River.

Opponents painted a gloomy picture of roads clogged with traffic and taxpayers saddled with paying for massive additions to infrastructure, including five miles of new town roads and five new bridges. Conservationists warned that the forest shielded an aquifer that is the wellspring of the pristine headwaters for the Oyster River, Trout Brook and other streams flowing into the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound. That makes it the source of drinking water for much of the area. The golf course would have sucked up 250,000 gallons daily and, opponents worried, would doubtless return runoff tainted with chemicals needed to keep it green.

This woodland bastion is relatively unique to the region, due to the maturity and mixture of its flora – a habitat critical to wildlife both resident and migratory – with a biodiversity few areas in the state can match. Its wildlife ranges from bears and bobcats to blue-winged warblers and spotted salamanders, the eggs of which could be seen in one of the tract’s 38 vernal pools, on a visit there this spring. Overall, the forest and associated wetlands support an ecological community of extreme complexity that would unbalance if fragmented by extensive development.

This 16-year eco-drama ended in late April when the trust, whose mission is to save land for public use as parks and open space, closed on the property and transferred it to the stewardship of state and local agencies. The cast was complex, involving local and state governments, developers, conservation organizations, grassroots citizens groups, individuals and the trust, which, when all looked black, showed up as the good knight. Not surprisingly, local politics were impacted and attorneys had a field day. They made a ton of money in court and at hearings that sprouted like mushrooms after a spring rain.

The 1,000-acre forest was the subject of land transactions, not all voluntary, long before the modern shifts in ownership began. The Nehantic Indians, who were displaced by the more warlike Pequots a few decades before the arrival of English setters, first occupied land around what became Old Saybrook. Tradition has it that the Pequots sold the forest to the Inghams, one of the town’s founding families. As years passed, the land saw multiple uses, including timbering and as a hunting preserve.

Old Saybrook and Essex missed a chance at buying the land in the mid-1990s, when the Lyon family of Essex, who then owned the property, offered it as open space for $2.5 million. Subsequent attempts by Old Saybrook and the state to raise money for the tract sputtered. In 1998, Taylor Development bought the property for more than $6 million. Townspeople and environmentalists mobilized against the development, while the developer began the long process of obtaining approval from various municipal boards and commissions.

The brouhaha continued year after year, involving more environmental groups, then Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and state legislators, who sided with environmentalists. Even so, gloomy locals began to view some development as inevitable, given the clout and resources of the Wall Street giant involved. Repeatedly, the tide of the battle shifted back and forth. The State Superior Court in Middletown reversed an Old Saybrook Inland Wetlands Commission approval of a golf course on the land. The Old Saybrook Planning Commission cracked open the door by allowing the developers to recast the proposal as one with pods of homes around central open space.

Meanwhile the state and environmental groups continued efforts to appraise the property with an eye toward purchase from Lehman Brothers. But the firm insisted it was worth more than $30 million, an unattainable sum. That estimate went down the drain after Lehman went down the tubes in 2009.

However, like a recurring bad dream, the development pitch had legs. River Sound Development, a wholly owned subsidiary, retained the property as its only asset and pushed on with a proposal. In 2011, the Old Saybrook Planning Commission shocked residents by approving a proposal providing for clustered housing on the tract. Opposition lawyers returned to the courts and legal battles resumed.

By this time, in addition to the state and grassroots opponents, a half dozen or so environmental groups joined forces against development. To the casual observer at the time, the loose confederation of allies seemed as if it needed a general. Enter the trust, a national organization that has a state office in New Haven. A project manager, Kate Brown, was assigned to the forest campaign, which then took a major turn for the better.

While many environmental groups have their fingers in myriad conservation pies, the trust does one thing only, and well: grabbing land. Grabbing land, that is, for a very good purpose, setting aside parks, natural areas and other open space for – as the trust’s name implies – the public. The trust helps raise funds to obtain land, often supplying real estate and legal expertise, and even optioning or purchasing a property temporarily until a government or community land trust can permanently protect it.

The trust cobbled together the $8.09 million price from various sources: $3 million in bonding approved by Old Saybrook voters, $200,000 from Essex, more than $3.6 million from the state and almost $3 million from private donors to create a stewardship to fund the place.

The natural beauty of the forest was evident on a visit with Kate Brown in April, even though the trees were still leafless. Red-winged blackbirds trilled along the margins of 30-acre Pequot Swamp, the source of water the state rates at its highest level of quality. Overhead, a red-shouldered hawk, a species that loves forested wetlands, screamed. The feeling of wilderness was such that it was hard to believe the Connecticut Turnpike was only a few minutes away. If the forest had fallen to development, that swamp would have been rimmed by upscale houses and manicured lawns.

Further inside the forest, a hike traverses deep swales and low ridges studded by rocky, moss-covered outcrops. Small crystal clear streams meander through skunk cabbage as they flow into larger rivers that eventually link this ecological gem of a forest to the sea, and the world beyond.

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