Small cost to protect our rich history

It is at best a dramatic understatement to say the Connecticut shoreline has changed substantially since European settlers first came ashore in the 17th Century. Yet, should Thomas Stanton return today to the Pawcatuck riverfront land on which he settled 365 years ago, he would no doubt still recognize the location of his trading post and homestead.

In the centuries since Stanton helped found Stonington, much of the shoreline was carved into house lots, disappeared behind marinas or was developed as industrial complexes. At Stanton's original trading post, however, farmers have planted crops, tended them and harvested without interruption since at least 1654.

This is far from the only reason the 400-acre Stanton-Davis farm deserves the town's financial support to ensure its preservation. Strategically located with both river and ocean frontage and abutting the more than 1,000-acre Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, the farm also represents a significant confluence of Native, European and African history.

Besides archaeological evidence of perhaps thousands of years of Native occupation, Thomas Stanton likely wrote Mohegan Chief Uncas' will at the homestead. Evidence also suggests Venture Smith, one of the few slaves to pen a personal account of slavery's brutality, worked there in the 1750s.

The house - Stonington's oldest - was governmental headquarters during King Phillip's War in 1675 and the farm provided food for Continental soldiers during the American Revolution and the privateers sailing from Stonington harbor during the War of 1812.

Parts of the farm already are preserved. Owner John "Whit" Davis, a direct descendent of the Stantons who has lived his entire life on the farm and delights in sharing his family's history, donated acres of marshland to a land trust years ago and more recently donated the homestead to a non-profit group working to restore and operate it as a museum. Now, the Stonington Land Trust has until November 2015 to raise the $2 million needed to purchase an easement to block future development of a 168-acre chunk of the farm.

The Land Trust, nearly half-way to its fundraising goal, is asking the town to contribute $200,000 from an open space account derived from developers who pony up dollars in lieu of providing dedicated open space acres when building in town. The Board of Selectmen supports the Land Trust's request, but the measure still needs other approvals, with the next step being the Board of Finance.

The town has rejected open space efforts in the past. In 2012, Coogan Farm supporters requesting $1.5 million in public funds to help preserve that site were practically laughed out of the room by Board of Finance members who said they preferred the land be developed to contribute to the town's tax base.

Stonington Land Trust Executive Director Stanton Simm makes no comparisons between the Coogan Farm campaign and the one to save the Davis Farm and, to be fair, Davis Farm supporters are asking for a fraction of what the Coogan Farm preservationists requested. Further, the Land Trust asks for Davis Farm money from a fund already dedicated to open space preservation.

Mr. Simm also makes a good case in arguing that while preservation of the Davis Farm does not come with immediate public access to the site, should the farm be developed, it would threaten the Barn Island ecosystem, where public access is abundant. He also contends the effort to preserve the Davis farm is running out of time - Whit Davis is now 90 - and agreements made with him could become invalid should he die.

Stonington should contribute to protecting this vital piece of its history. It also should take steps to ensure the Land Trust works toward at least limited future public access for passive reaction such as hiking. However, without first protecting against future development, all such opportunities for the site will disappear.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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