A golden celebration: Groton Open Space Association marks 50 years of conservation

An owl perches on a street sign at Haley Farm.
(Courtesy of Adrian Johnson)
An owl perches on a street sign at Haley Farm. (Courtesy of Adrian Johnson)

One of my first assignments as a young reporter covering the town of Groton in the early 1970s was to write about a plan to build a new east-west highway through town, which developers promised would alleviate traffic on Route 1 and increase tax revenues with new shopping centers, apartment complexes and other businesses.

After listening to proponents at a public hearing extol potential benefits, I thought to myself, “Sounds like a reasonable idea. Who could possibly object?”

Just then, a woman carrying a thick portfolio marched purposefully to the lectern at Town Hall and began reading a series of reports: Environmental studies showing how the road would damage wetlands and other wildlife habitat; traffic surveys that illustrated how new roads only encourage more driving and add to congestion; economic data outlining how the costs of road maintenance and additional fire and police protection would more than offset any financial gains.

In addition, she noted, new stores likely would drive existing ones out of business and turn the town’s main shopping district on Long Hill Road into a commercial wasteland.

Finally, she said, the issue really centered on quality of life: Would we rather live in a town cluttered with condos, strip malls and fast-food restaurants, or one with walking paths, parks and open space?

“Hmmm,” I mused. “Never really thought about those things.”

Observing that I was taking notes, the woman strode over, handed me copies of her reports and introduced herself.

“I’m Sidney Van Zandt,” she said. “We need to talk.”

Thus began a connection, and soon friendship, that over the decades has expanded my environmental awareness, affirmed my belief in the power of the people and, most important, given me hope for the future.

The Groton Open Space Association that Sidney, along with the late Charles and Priscilla Pratt helped found, emerged from a group of young idealists. Beginning in the late 1960s they teamed up with the Connecticut Forest & Park Association and Connecticut Conservation Association to help raise money to save Haley Farm. They held bake sales and spaghetti suppers, and in 1970 even staged a rock concert to come up with the $50,000 the state needed to help buy the property and preserve it as a park rather than allow it to be turned into a subdivision containing 425 units of duplex housing.

The Haley Farm saviors were part of a generation that marched for civil rights, protested against the Vietnam War and celebrated the first Earth Day – planting the seeds of an environmental movement that continues to bear fruit today.

Now preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala April 27 at the Mystic Marriott, GOSA has become one of the region’s most effective advocates for land, water and wildlife conservation.

Working with the state and other entities it has helped preserve such treasured parcels as the 200-acre Haley Farm State Park, 800-acre Bluff Point Coastal Reserve, 75-acre Merritt Family Forest, 63-acre Sheep Farm, 91-acre Candlewood Ridge, the 305-acre Avery Farm, and, most recently, the Tilcon Property, a 201-acre former granite quarry that includes the largest pitch pine forest in Connecticut.

I was honored when Sidney nominated me in 1972 to serve on a legislative committee to draft a plan for “the highest and best use” of Bluff Point, a peninsula jutting into Fishers Island Sound that remains the largest undeveloped coastal tract between New York and Boston.

At the time an engineering firm had recommended construction of a four-lane access road down the middle of Bluff Point leading to an enormous parking lot near the southern tip that would be created by filling in and paving over a salt pond. Plans called for bathhouses, a boardwalk, amusement rides and hot dog stands — in short, a Groton version of New York’s Coney Island.

By then I also had befriended Johnny Kelley of Mystic, the late Boston Marathon champion and two-time Olympic runner who was coach of the Fitch High School cross-country team. Every day after school I tagged along with Johnny and the team on 10-mile trail runs from the high school, through Haley Farm, along the railroad tracks, and around Bluff Point and back.

These training runs were more than workouts — they were meditations in which Johnny shared transcendental philosophy rooted in his deep reverence for unspoiled nature. By the end of the season members of the team not only were state champions but also aspiring Thoreaus.

The Bluff Point Advisory Council applied that same passion for nature in devising a plan, and to our overwhelming joy the state legislature responded by passing an act creating Connecticut’s first (and only) coastal reserve. Today, Bluff Point is one of the state’s most exquisite natural attractions, where people can walk, jog or ride bikes over miles of unpaved paths through dense forests, along marshes and sandy beaches, and atop a rocky promontory that provides magnificent water views.

At a time when a short-sighted president threatens to undo environmental regulations in order to promote increased economic growth, we need such organizations as GOSA more than ever, supported by a new generation of idealistic, passionate activists working, as their predecessors did, to make a better world.

Steve Fagin writes a weekly blog, The Great Outdoors, on theday.com.

 

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