By JUDY BENSON
Day Staff Writer
Old Saybrook — Stepping atop a small knoll beside the old muddy cart path through the 1,000-acre forest known as The Preserve, Christopher Cryder took the stance of a golfer, grasped an imaginary club and took a swing.
"Right up there is where hole number 6 was planned of the championship golf course," he said, addressing about 50 people who joined him on an hourlong hike in warm, foggy weather Saturday morning. "And this is a well left from the developers."
Cryder, special projects director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, gestured towards a metal casing jutting out of the ground. It was the head of one of the wells used by the would-be property developers for pumping tests to validate their bid for permits needed extract about 250,000 gallons of water per day to irrigate the golf course. The developers sought to demonstrate that the water withdrawals would not have a significant impact on nearby Pequot Swamp, a 113-acre wetland that feeds two tributaries of the Connecticut River and is an important stopover for migratory birds. In the end, the town's Inland Wetlands Commission denied the permit.
"One day when I was here in the spring, I heard this very raucous sound of hundreds of birds and wood frogs, all chirping in unison," Cryder recalled.
Throughout the hike, Cryder and others gave reminders of what might have happened to the woods, streams, vernal pools, stone walls and historic foundations on this property — and what still could, if preservation plans aren't realized. A decade-long battle by conservation groups to save the property from becoming a golf course and neighborhood of about 225 homes is at a critical juncture, explained Alicia Betty, Connecticut director of the Trust for Public Land. The trust is working with the towns of Old Saybrook, as well as Westbrook and Essex, where small portions of The Preserve are located, and land trusts from the three towns, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Audubon Connecticut, The Nature Conservancy and the state to raise about $12 million to purchase and preserve the property. Lehman Brothers, the current owner and the company that last sought to develop it, has agreed to sell the property to the Trust, provided the funds are raised by June.
"There is just a handful of undeveloped coastal land left, and 1,000 acres anywhere in Connecticut is significant," said Betty. "We need your help. We need the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the governor to know this isn't just about Old Saybrook, but it's about Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River watershed and the entire state."
Betty said her group has had discussions with DEEP and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office to request the state provide $4 million to $5 million in funds toward the purchase. The trust has received about $750,000 so far towards about $2 million to $3 million in private funds it hopes to raise, and the remaining $3 million to $4 million would come from the town of Old Saybrook, Betty said. Town voters will be asked in a May referendum to support the town obtaining bond funds toward the purchase. If successful, the land, in the northwest corner of town, would be owned by the town with state conservation easements, and kept open to the public for hiking and other passive recreation.
"We need your help," Betty told the group. "We need voters in Old Saybrook. Without a big chunk of the money from Old Saybrook, we're not going to be able to do this."
Among those on the hike were state Rep. Philip Miller, D-Essex, and Emily Bjornberg of Lyme, who said she plans to seek the Democratic nomination to run for the legislative seat that will be vacated when state Rep. Marilyn Giuliano, R-Old Saybrook, completes her current term. Bjornberg said the purchase would enhance protection of the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound, and she supports the way it would be funded from a variety of sources.
"It's using resources from across the board," said Bjornberg, who brought her 7-year-old son Elliot along for the hike.
Cryder said the land, once part of the Ingham family farm, has been vacant for about 150 years, now proving a home for fisher cats, bobcats, 57 species of birds and about 25 species of reptiles, fairy shrimp and amphibians that use the 38 vernal pools to nest and lay eggs. Sometimes the whistle from the Essex Steam Train carries into the forest, prompting coyotes to howl in response, Cryder said.
John Ogren, a member of the Old Saybrook Land Trust, paused to look over an ice-covered vernal pool and reflect on the spotted salamanders that would be swimming there in the spring.
"There's so many reasons to preserve this — for the watershed, the vernal pools and the high cost to the town if they were to put 220 homes in here, which would require the town to build a new school, and provide fire and police," he said.
Walking next to Ogren was Mike Urban, treasurer of the town land trust.
"This is our second big chance to preserve this property once and for all," he said.
Added Ogren: "If we don't preserve it, it will be developed."