For Old Saybrook, fate of The Preserve is finally out of the woods

People vote at the polling station at Old Saybrook High School Tuesday, July 8, 2014, on the town of Old Saybrook appropriating $3 million toward the purchase of nearly 1,000 acres of the coastal forest called The Preserve.
Buy Photo Dana Jensen/The Day People vote at the polling station at Old Saybrook High School Tuesday, July 8, 2014, on the town of Old Saybrook appropriating $3 million toward the purchase of nearly 1,000 acres of the coastal forest called The Preserve.

Old Saybrook — By a landslide, voters approved the town spending $3 million toward the purchase of The Preserve, the 1,000-acre forest in the northwest corner of town that has been the focus of conflict between would-be developers and conservation advocates for the last two decades.

“We just don’t want to see it developed,” said Alexys Heffernan, a town resident for six years whose home is near The Preserve, as she left the polling place at Old Saybrook High School Tuesday afternoon.

Proponents gathered outside the polling place clapped and cheered when the results were announced: 2,002 “yes” votes to 242 “no” votes.

“That’s a strong statement,” said Chris Cryder, special projects coordinator for The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, one of the groups that led the preservation effort.

Alicia Sullivan, state director of The Trust for Public Land, called it “a big success” that stands out among other conservation victories the nonprofit group has helped spearhead. Most other successful similar referenda pass by smaller ratios than the overwhelming 90 percent who voted in favor Tuesday. The significance goes well beyond Old Saybrook, she said.

“This land influences and protects Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River, and these are the most significant natural resources we have in Connecticut,” she said.

“This is one of the last large unprotected areas between New York and Boston” and is even more important because of its coastal location, she said.

Proposals for the land, owned by various would-be developers over the years, have included construction of 200 homes and a golf course. Currently owned by River Sound Development, the forest is one of the largest undeveloped areas near the state’s coastline, with several waterways that empty into the Sound and the Connecticut River. Preservation advocates note that the area is a significant stopover for migratory birds and provides crucial wildlife habitat and groundwater filtration.

The longstanding efforts to save The Preserve from development took a significant leap forward over the last year when The Trust for Public Land helped negotiate a purchase agreement with the owner and the state pledged $3.3 million toward the $8.03 million deal. The remainder of the funds would come from the town, private donations, federal grants and about $200,000 from the town of Essex, where about 70 acres is located.

Kate Brown, project manager for the trust, said fundraising will continue for the next several months. She hopes a closing on the sale will take place by the end of the year. The property would be owned by the state and the towns of Old Saybrook and Essex.

Old Saybrook Land Trust President Joe Nochera said he was proud both of the consortium of groups that came together under The Trust for Public Land, and of the town for passing the referendum.

“Tonight was a win for Old Saybrook and all of Connecticut,” he said. “Residents and visitors alike will now be able to enjoy the benefits of a fully protected Preserve. This last 1,000 acres of wild coastal forest will now remain forever available for all to enjoy.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a prepared statement following the vote: “The permanent protection of ‘The Preserve’ has been a goal of the land conservation community across our state for more than 15 years, and now with voters’ approval, this land will be protected in perpetuity and enjoyed by residents for generations to come.”

Supporters of the purchase include U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., state Rep. Phil Miller, D-Essex, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who joined representatives of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and The Trust for Public Land at a news conference Monday. Leading up to the vote, advocates placed 300 “Vote Yes” signs along town roadsides.

“This landslide vote is a powerful, huge and historic tribute to countless hours of citizen activist work to protect this pristine and precious natural treasure,” Blumenthal said Tuesday night. “All of Connecticut can be proud of this giant step toward environmental preservation.”

Turnout for the referendum was heavy, with about three to four times as many people casting ballots Tuesday as in other town votes, Democratic Registrar of Voters Carol Conklin said. A total of 2,044 votes were cast by the 7,053 eligible registered residents. Nonresident property owners were also allowed to vote.

First Selectman Carl Fortuna said the timing of the referendum enabled full-time and summer residents to vote. A 20-year bond would mean the $3 million expenditure would cost a typical Old Saybrook taxpayer about $25 per year.

“You get a high turnout when an issue is big,” Fortuna said. “This is one of the most important issues of the last generation here in Old Saybrook. It’s been going on for 20 years, and today is the day it’s coming to a head once and for all.”

Five voters interviewed outside the polling place all said they had voted “yes” and will be relieved once the forest is finally preserved after two decades of uncertainty about its future.

“We’re all for it,” said Richard Parizo, a resident for 30 years, as he and his wife, Audrey, left the school Tuesday afternoon.

Matthew and Mary Sue Hermman said deciding to vote “yes” was an easy decision, and that the referendum’s passage is an historic moment for the town.

“It does feel significant,” Matthew Hermman said. “I’m excited about it.”

j.benson@theday.com

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