Old Saybrook: Preserve The Preserve

Many residents and visitors treasure this region's shoreline not because of what people have built here, such as housing developments, highways, shopping centers and factories, but for what they've preserved.

Our magnificent waterfront parks, including Rocky Neck in East Lyme, Harkness in Waterford, Bluff Point in Groton, Barn Island in Stonington and Napatree Point in Westerly, cumulatively comprise thousands of unspoiled acres that future generations will enjoy thanks to forward-thinking citizens who recognized the long-term value of land conservation.

Today, Old Saybrook residents have the opportunity to expand that impressive legacy when they vote on a plan to spend $3 million toward the purchase price of The Preserve, nearly 1,000 pristine acres on the shore of Long Island Sound and the mouth of the Connecticut River.

The parcel, which developers have eyed for decades as a potential golf course and residential subdivision, represents "the last large unprotected coastal forest between New York City and Boston," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said three months ago in announcing a complex acquisition plan.

If Old Saybrook voters approve and the other pieces of the funding plan fall into place as expected, The Preserve will be protected in perpetuity and available for hiking, fishing, boating, bird-watching and other forms of public recreation.

The $3 million expenditure would cost the typical Old Saybrook taxpayer about $25 a year, a tiny price considering the extraordinary benefit.

The Preserve, which contains a mix of unspoiled woodlands, wetlands and Atlantic white cedar swamp, is home to countless species of mammals and shoreline birds. It also adjoins more than 500 acres of parkland with miles of additional trails, which would make The Preserve one of the region's most extensive and impressive hiking destinations.

The state would contribute $3.3 million toward the $8.09 million total purchase price and the town of Essex, which owns 70 acres of The Preserve, has agreed to pay $200,000, with the balance coming from private contributions.

The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization that since 1972 has helped protect more than 3 million acres and completed more than 5,200 park and conservation projects across the country, negotiated the purchase agreement for The Preserve. It would raise the rest of the money from private contributions. The group, which to date has brought in more than $1 million in donations, would then convey to the Old Saybrook Land Trust a conservation easement designating The Preserve as permanent open space. The property would be co-owned by the state and the town of Old Saybrook.

Today is the third time in recent memory that Old Saybrook has been given a chance to buy the property.

Twice in the 1990s previous owners offered it to the town for $2.5 million, but the measure never came before voters.

After the land subsequently changed hands several times a man from South Carolina who paid $6 million in the late 1990s obtained $7.8 million in mortgages from Lehman Brothers, the ill-fated international brokerage.

The financial firm eventually took over the property when the owner defaulted, and then repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought zoning permits that would have allowed construction of a golf course and more than 200 houses on the property. By this time residents had galvanized against any development plans and the state renewed efforts to buy The Preserve.

Negotiations continued after Lehman's 2008 bankruptcy filing contributed to a near-collapse of the U.S. economy, and eventually a deal was struck for $8.09 million with River Sound Development, The Preserve's most recent owners.

Old Saybrook residents must not let this opportunity slip through their fingers again.

Voting takes place from noon to 8 p.m. today in the high school gymnasium. We urge voters to approve the $3 million. It will be money well-spent.

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