Deal struck to preserve 1,000-acre wood

Old Saybrook - A 15-year battle to save the 1,000-acre forest known as The Preserve achieved a major breakthrough this week when The Trust for Public Land reached an agreement with the would-be developers to buy the property for conservation.

"We've been talking to them seriously for a year, trying to put this deal together," Kate Brown, project manager at the Trust's New Haven office, said Wednesday. "Now we can start to organize the community to raise the money."

Under the agreement, the Trust would raise $10 million to $11 million from private donations, state and federal grants and other sources to purchase The Preserve from owner River Sound Development. Commitments for the funds must be obtained by June 2014, and a closing would take place sometime after that.

"We put down a deposit, and made certain other commitments, and we bought some time," Brown said.

In a statement issued by the trust, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called the agreement "a major milestone in our efforts to preserve critical lands in this state," and said the state would partner with the Trust and others "to make this purchase a reality."

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said state grant funds may be made available to cover part of the purchase price. DEEP has been talking with the Trust and other conservation organizations about the best way to manage the property once it is purchased to ensure it is protected and accessible to the public, he said.

Located in the northwest section of town and adjoining 500 acres of town parkland, the property would be made available for passive recreation such as hiking and wildlife watching, the Trust said. It includes 38 vernal pools, 114 acres of wetlands and more than 3,100 feet of watercourses, and is critical to the water quality of the Oyster and Mud rivers and Trout Brook. Wildlife identified on the property include the northern dusky salamander, spotted turtles, box turtles, bobcats, fishers and many migratory birds, the Trust said.

Development proposals for The Preserve date back to 1998, including plans for 200 homes and an 18-hole golf course. Opposition to the various plans generated several lawsuits from conservation groups and residents. Several previous attempts to purchase the land from the developers were unsuccessful.

"Old Saybrook looks forward to working with The Trust for Public Land towards a successful closing on this property, a closing that economically and environmentally favors The Town of Old Saybrook and the region," First Selectman Carl Fortuna said in the statement.

Brown said the Trust hopes to raise $1 million to $2 million in private donations. The town may be asked to contribute some of the funds through a bond referendum, and state and federal grants will be sought, she said.

While most of the property is in old Saybrook, small portions are in the towns of Westbrook and Essex.

Two of the conservation groups most active in the efforts to save The Preserve - the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut chapter - both issued statements applauding the agreement.

"This is a momentous development in protecting Connecticut's open space," said Roger Reynolds, legal director and director of land protection programs for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. "This agreement finally gives Connecticut the opportunity to conserve one of the last major unprotected coastal wetland and coastal forest complexes between New York City and Boston."

The organization said it would work with the Trust to help raise the funds for purchase and stewardship of the property.

Chris Cryder, a resident of Old Saybrook and special projects coordinator at the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, has worked with local grass-roots activists for years to protect the land.

"From the very beginning, there's been a strong group of local residents who understand the value of this land and are passionate about saving it," he said. "We're looking forward to continuing our work together to get this over this finish line and protect The Preserve once and for all."

The head of The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut office highlighted The Preserve's significance along the state's shoreline.

"There are very few unprotected parcels of forest land this large remaining anywhere in Connecticut, and particularly in our coastal towns," said Frogard Ryan, state director for the conservancy.

Officials at River Sound Development could not be reached for comment.

j.benson@theday.com

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