Old Saybrook considers Preserve purchase plan

Hartford — A plan for the state and Old Saybrook to purchase The Preserve and jointly own it remains intact following a vote by the General Assembly at the end of the 2014 legislative session to authorize up to $2 million in state bonds for the purchase.

The town of Old Saybrook has yet to approve its proposed $3 million contribution.

"The town is having a big conversation on this right now," said First Selectman Carl Fortuna. "There's always people who are not for it - they don't want to spend the money, you know, or there are a variety of reasons - but I think long term we will look back on this as we have other open space purchases and be happy it is conserved forever."

The Preserve, a 1,000-acre parcel of wetlands, coastal rainforest and an Atlantic White Cedar swamp that is for sale for $8.1 million, has been a point of contention in Old Saybrook for about 20 years. The town has fended off developers who have tried to build residential properties and golf courses, which Fortuna said would have ultimately cost the town more because of demands on infrastructure and the school system.

Environmentalists have said the land needs to be preserved 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 town and the state would co-manage the land.

The communities that encompass the preserve - Old Saybrook, Essex and Westbrook - have had difficulty figuring out how to move forward together. In 2013, The Trust for Public Land obtained a long-awaited purchasing agreement from Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which went bankrupt in 2008. The governor's administration, town officials and state lawmakers ultimately agreed on a purchasing plan, and the General Assembly passed the bond authorization for The Preserve, within a $953 million bonds package, on May 6.

The legislation awaits the governor's signature. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has already said he supports the project and called the parcel "the last large unprotected coastal forest between New York City and Boston."

If Malloy signs the bill, it will still be up to the State Bond Commission to allocate the $2 million for The Preserve. The project is not on the State Bond Commission's agenda yet, said Dennis Schain, spokesman for DEEP.

Fortuna said he hopes the town's Board of Finance will vote on the town's contribution for the land purchase in the near future. The Board of Selectmen has recommended the town contribute $3 million, and the finance board held a public hearing on the matter Tuesday evening. Fortuna said he expects another finance meeting before a town meeting and a referendum.

The Trust for Public Land has pledged to contribute between $2 million and $3 million from private donors and the state is hoping to obtain $1.4 million from the federal government for the purchase.

"We are pleased with the passage of the bond," said Alicia Sullivan, the Connecticut state director for The Trust for Public Land. "I think it is a wonderful recognition that the state sees that this is a property of statewide and regional significance, impacting the Connecticut River and the Long Island Sound."

The majority of the land - 926 acres - sits in Old Saybrook, while 71 acres are within Essex and 4 in Westbrook.

The Essex Land Trust has applied for an open space grant from DEEP, Sullivan said. The maximum grant is $470,000 and applicants will hear whether they were awarded the funds in the fall, she said. The town of Essex will likely have to contribute additional funds to purchase the 71 acres.

Westbrook would not be contributing a financial amount but would make "in kind" contributions such as building a trailhead, Fortuna said. Old Saybrook and the state would also purchase the 4 acres from Westbrook, which would make them landowners in Westbrook, Fortuna said.

The Trust for Public Land currently has the purchasing agreement with Lehman Brothers, and Sullivan said she expects the property to be transferred to the state and Old Saybrook by the end of the calendar year.

The state and Old Saybrook are prohibited from developing recreational structures that require "intense development," such as sports fields and swimming pools, according to the legislation.

Passive recreation is allowed, such as hiking trails, bird watching and geocaching, which involves hunting for hidden treasures and trinkets with a GPS device such as a smartphone.

The state and town are also able to practice forest management, which means removing unhealthy trees that are impairing other trees' growth or to prevent forest fires.

Fortuna said the No. 1 reason to preserve the open space is that it reduces expenses for the town in the long run.

"That is the economic reality, you know. It prevents further sprawl in the town, which I also think is a good thing," Fortuna said. Developing The Preserve would mean building roads, bridges, possibly schools and additional police and fire services, he said.

j.somers@theday.com

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