Land trust, East Lyme weigh joint effort for open space

East Lyme - The nonprofit Woodsmen Land Trust is proposing a "public-private partnership" for the town to acquire open space, including the 166-acre Gurley Brook Preserve and additional land near Darrow Pond.

The proposal would gain the town 218 acres of land called for in the town's Plan of Conservation and Development and would cost it about $2.3 million. Time is short for the town to purchase the land because the land trust's contract to buy it expires Dec. 31.

The area proposed for open space includes Gurley Brook Preserve, east of Route 161 near the headwaters of the Niantic River and just north of the Oswegatchie Hills. It also includes 45 acres abutting the town's Darrow Pond property and 7 acres on Mostowy Road west of Route 161.

The initiative calls for the trust, a nonprofit corporation based in Old Saybrook, to purchase some of the land and options for the rest from New England National LLC, which will then remove several easements that restrict access to Darrow Pond. The trust would then "assign or option the land purchase agreements as well as land use rights agreements" to the town, said WLT Chairman John C. Ellis at a Board of Selectmen meeting two weeks ago.

The trust has a $500,000 matching fund grant from the state to acquire Gurley Brook Preserve, located in the Niantic River watershed, which the town's 2009 Plan of Conservation and Development identifies as a "key preservation opportunity."

With the $500,000 grant, the cost would come to $2.3 million, but the town could apply for grants and receive carbon credits from the forestland, Ellis said.

The land trust has a contract with New England National LLC to buy the land near Darrow Pond, including the 45-acre parcel on Upper Pattagansett Road approved for 58 units of affordable housing, he said, as well as purchase the option on the preserve, located at 29 Goldfinch Terrace.

"It also requires New England National to release the existing easement or otherwise provide for the public's ability to use Darrow Pond for the recreational purposes envisioned by the Darrow Pond Open Space Committee, which is presently prohibited, and to release its retained rights to use Darrow Pond in its entirety for commercial purposes," Ellis said.

New England National has ongoing litigation against the town in bankruptcy court. The company had claimed the town broke a compromise agreement it signed when settling a lawsuit over the assessment of land near Darrow Pond.

In 2011, the town had purchased - with the Trust for Public Land - 301 acres of open space near Darrow Pond from Webster Bank. Ellis said the proposed acquisition would be done in a similar manner.

Preserving the land called for in the proposal would help protect water sources such as Niantic Bay, Latimer Brook, the Pattagansett aquifer and watershed, according to Ellis.

"It is WLT's hope that this public-private partnership is the template for advancing the town's open space, water quality and aquifer protective goals," Ellis told the selectmen.

In 2012, WLT received the state's open space grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Support for the application came from the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Board of Selectmen, Niantic River Watershed Committee and the town's planning and Conservation of Natural Resources commissions.

The grant is intended to be used to acquire Gurley Brook Preserve parcel from KSK Associates LLC, for which developer Stephen Harney, who also serves on the Board of Finance, is a member. New England National owns the option on the property.

Ellis said he will present the plan to the Planning Commission at 7 tonight at Town Hall.

An executive session of the Board of Selectmen to discuss "pending litigation and real estate acquisitions" is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall. The regular meeting is at 7:30 p.m. In addition to approval by selectmen, the proposal also needs approval from the Board of Finance and residents.


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