East Lyme - Just a few streets away, large new homes dot a subdivision, the 21st-century vision of suburban living.
But on Plants Dam Road, one house stands humbly the way it has for centuries. The Samuel Smith property, as it's known, is a 17th-century farmhouse largely unchanged by the passage of time. There stands the 1685 house, with its hand-hewn wood beams and original door handles. There's the original well, and the original outhouse, both in use until about 30 years ago.
And the land it sits on? It's 17 acres of pristine farmland, so untouched by development that what are believed to be three Indian graves remain undisturbed.
"It's a magnificent teaching product," said Arthur Carlson, chairman of the East Lyme Commission for the Conservation of Natural Resources. Carlson's commission and the Historic Properties Commission are asking the town to consider buying the Samuel Smith property in order to preserve it. They held an open house Saturday for visitors.
It's not just that the house - which includes two additions, one from around 1735 and one from 1812 - is so valuable, Carlson said. The property, which cozies up to 800 feet of Bride Brook, sits on 7 acres of an aquifer that feeds the town's public water system, he said.
Purchasing the property in order to preserve it would protect the drinking supply by letting water filter down slowly and naturally through the gravel and sand that lie beneath the open fields, Carlson said. By contrast, if the Samuel Smith property were sold to a developer looking to subdivide the land into housing lots, the addition of impervious surface would contribute to water pollution and polluted runoff.
"If you look at that hill, nothing can cause pollution there," Carlson said, peering out onto the open land from inside the 300-year-old barn that sits right next to the house.
The house is the fourth oldest in East Lyme, said Luane Lange, chairman of the Historic Properties Commission.
The purchase price remains undetermined, but one appraisal has valued the house at $565,000, Lange said. The town would need a second appraisal in order to apply for two preservation grants - $200,000 for the house and $160,000 for the land on which it sits.
The town would have to commit to purchasing the property at a town meeting, with or without the grants. If the property is purchased at $500,000 at a 3 percent interest rate for 20 years, the annual cost to each of East Lyme's 9,300 taxpayers would be $3.58, according to a handout from the two commissions. Securing the grants would hold the annual tax increase per taxpayer to 86 cents.
The natural resources commission came to learn of the property's value five years ago, when it undertook a study of the town's open space for the Plan of Conservation and Development, Carlson said.
Currently, 17 percent of the town - 3,871 acres - is preserved as open space. During the course of their research, Carlson and others determined that there were 65 properties comprising 3,565 acres of land that should be preserved and added to the open space rolls, if possible, in part to protect the water supply.
The town sent out letters to the 65 landowners, asking them to consider giving the town the right to first refusal if they ever sold their property.
Five people responded, including Stephen and Carol Huber, owners of the Samuel Smith house.
This old house
What the Hubers, who now live in Old Saybrook, had that no other owner of a 1600s house has is a lived-in house that is pretty much in its original state, Carlson said. The kitchen - or "buttery" - now includes modern appliances, and there have been some changes, such as the addition of a downstairs bathroom, but otherwise, "It looks like it did in 1685," Carlson said.
"If you know history and old houses, you can realize that these are the original floorboards," he said.
"These are the original beams. You can see the original paint. ... They maintained it just as a residence and did not make any improvements."
Indeed, a tour of the house reveals such architecturally significant features as feather-edge paneling, cased summer beams and beaded joists. Stairs lead to a downstairs cellar, which houses the summer kitchen fireplace; the wooden wall by the cellar door has been smoothed by centuries of hands placed there to steady trips downstairs.
Upstairs, visitors can make out "$4.47 sheep" in white chalk - currency in shillings - which led the Hubers to believe the owners at the time must have had a loom set up in the loft.
All these features remained because the house was occupied by "working people," Carlson said, who "never had the money to refine it."
"This becomes a treasure that we should keep for not my generation - I've already seen it. This is for the next one and the next one," Carlson said. "This is not, 'Oh, this is a good place for birds.' Well, it is, but it's much more than that."