State, towns plan to invest in the future with Preserve purchase

Hartford — The state will partner with Old Saybrook, Essex and Westbrook to purchase The Preserve, a 1,000-acre parcel that is home to wetlands, a coastal rainforest and an Atlantic White Cedar swamp.

Developers had attempted for years to turn the property into residences and a golf course.

"The preserve is a truly remarkable property that must be protected for now and for the future," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said during a press conference on Friday. "It's the last large unprotected coastal forest between New York City and Boston."

Malloy called on the General Assembly to pass a bill this legislative session that would allow the state to co-own the open-space property with local communities and spend about $3.3 million toward the purchase. Under Malloy's plan, the $8.1 million Preserve would be purchased by a variety of stakeholders and be open to the public. The state would obtain $1.4 million from the federal government and bond an additional $1.9 million. Old Saybrook, which is home to the bulk of The Preserve, would contribute $3 million and The Trust for Public Land would contribute $2 million to $3 million from private donors.

"I don't know of any other land acquisition that is higher-ranked in importance across the state than this particular action we are taking today," Malloy said.

After 20 years of fending off developers and negotiating a price, the plan has emerged because The Trust for Public Land in 2013 obtained a purchasing agreement from Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which went bankrupt in 2008 during the financial crisis.

"Circumstances have occurred over the last 10 years, in particularly the market crash in 2008, that now present Old Saybrook and the state of Connecticut with the unique opportunity to acquire this land," Old Saybrook Republican First Selectman Carl P. Fortuna said. "We must seize the moment, as the governor said."

Another piece of the puzzle that was recently solved was getting the local communities to reach an agreement on how to purchase the land, Malloy said.

The majority of the acreage is in Old Saybrook, which is scheduled to hold a referendum this summer on whether to spend $3 million on the open space acquisition. The land would be used for hiking, hunting and fishing, among other activities. Essex and Westbrook would also have to pass budgets that include their portions of the land purchase.

"You would be hard-pressed to find a more complicated land transaction in the state in the last 15 years," Malloy said.

Numerous conservation groups and lawmakers have gotten involved in the effort to protect the environmentally sensitive Preserve in order to protect water quality, coastal resilience, migratory birds and amphibian species. The Preserve is a critical piece of land, they say, because surface water on the property drains into three watersheds — the Oyster River, the Mud River and Trout Brook — and then makes its way to Long Island Sound.

"The parcel contains critical wetlands habitat and the headwaters of three different coastal river watersheds," said Frogard Ryan, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. "... Such large, unbroken forests are essential for ... migratory songbirds and other species."

Alicia Sullivan, state director of The Trust for Public Land said, "We are honored to be leading this effort now through our negotiations with Lehman Brothers, the real estate work that we are doing, and our effort to raise funds for the purchase and protection of this land. We are only one partner in a large team of conservation organizations."

Protecting The Preserve would also save the town money, Fortuna said. The town has spent thousands of dollars in litigation over land-use rulings and appeals over the last 20 years, he said. If The Preserve were developed, it would cost money to provide police, fire, education and infrastructure for those using the developed property, he added.

Fortuna said he would soon bring the proposal for Old Saybrook to contribute $3 million toward the purchase of The Preserve to the Board of Selectmen, hold town meetings and public hearings and have a referendum in June.

"If we do not move on this piece of property at this moment, and quite frankly, at this price, because many prices have been discussed over the years, we lose the opportunity of a generation, literally, and much more," Fortuna said.

j.somers@theday.com

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