Connecticut Landmarks is exploring selling its neglected Stonington farm

This abandoned house, seen Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, is on Al Harvey Road in Stonington and is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. (David Collins/The Day)
This abandoned house, seen Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, is on Al Harvey Road in Stonington and is owned by Connecticut Landmarks. (David Collins/The Day)

Connecticut Landmarks has asked the Connecticut attorney general for an opinion about whether it can sell Forge Farm, the 18th-century farmhouse and acreage on Al Harvey Road in Stonington, which was given to the organization for safekeeping in 1982 as a bequest, along with a substantial endowment.

This news, confirmed by the attorney general this past week, came as a great surprise to me, because Sheryl Hack, Landmarks executive director, told me days earlier that it wasn't true, when I called to ask about it.

"That rumor is false," she told me, when I asked about reports I heard that the organization was talking to the attorney general about the idea of a sale. She added she didn't know where such a rumor might come from.

We went on then to talk about the condition of the property, which has been abandoned and neglected for more than a year, despite an endowment, which now contains about $1.4 million, left for its maintenance and preservation.

When I finally caught up with Hack again late Friday, she told me I was misremembering our conversation, saying that she denied only, in our first call, that the organization has specific plans to sell the property.

Even if I was ready to concede that her recollection and notes from the conversation are better than mine — which I am not — I was surprised once again Friday how little she was prepared to say about plans for the property that had become a beloved place in town before a landlord-tenant dispute between Landmarks and Terra Firma, which ran a popular community farm there for a dozen years, forced the farm to leave.

After all, if options other than selling — such as a new restoration, for instance — are really being considered, wouldn't an organization want to talk at least generally about it? Shouldn't the organization offer some reassurance to the community that it is not going to let the property sit abandoned for another year, blight on a handsome country road? Is it getting new repair and restoration estimates? Hack would not say.

She added that the broken window that I reported birds have been flying in and out of was repaired this past week.

Hack pretty much refused to talk about anything except her recollection of our earlier conversation, that she didn't deny the organization had talks with the attorney general about selling.

An attorney general review of the question of whether Landmarks can sell the farm, regulated as a restricted charitable asset, began in June, when it was raised by the organization. It is ongoing, and the organization has been supplying requested documentation about the property and endowment, according to a written statement from a spokesperson for Attorney General George Jepsen.

I reported this past week that the endowment has been shrinking, even as Forge Farm has slipped into disrepair. It was reduced by about $100,000 between 2015 and 2016, according to an audit of Connecticut Landmarks finances.

Hack refused again Friday to discuss the endowment, but she agreed to research the history of expenditures from it and get back to me.

The statement from the attorney general said the continuing review of Forge Farm will "include an investigation as to whether there has been appropriate use of the endowment as a restricted charitable gift."

I will be curious to see how that turns out, given the condition of the house and the amount of money left in the endowment.

"Everybody's lawyered up," is what Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons told me Friday, when I finally caught up with him at his Town Hall office, after a few days of his ducking my messages.

Simmons cited this "lawyering up" as the reason he wouldn't answer my questions about Forge Farm, which he knows well. By the time I asked him about the idea of selling it, he abruptly ended the conversation.

Simmons, who is on the board of the Stonington Historical Society, was on the board of Connecticut Landmarks as Terra Firma's relationship with the organization broke down. He was listed as a trustee on tax returns for 2016 and, since leaving the board, is now listed on the website as an honorary trustee.

Hack said she spoke with Simmons last week about Forge Farm but would not say about what.

"The first selectman is very capable of speaking for himself, as you know," she said.

You would think a town's first selectman, whose family asked the zoning board to change regulations to allow commercial development of its own beloved historic farm, would have something to say about an attorney general investigation into the management of another important historic farm in town.

Really? Nothing to say, even as neighbors and alarmed preservation-minded residents begin to organize an effort to save the property?

Is the first selectman lawyering up, too?

It seems incredible to me that Landmarks would try to argue in court that Forge Farm can't be saved in a way to honor the donors' wishes that it be preserved as an example of early American architecture, and that they should be allowed to sell the house and the land and repurpose the endowment.

But that is essentially the question the attorney general has been asked to consider.

I trust he will come up with the right answer.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

Editor's Note: This column has been edited to correct the total endowment.

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