State grants will help Avalonia grow by nearly 700 acres

Juliana Barrett, left, and Beth Sullivan, the steward for the Avalonia Dodge Paddock, walk on the preserve, which is maintained by the Avalonia Land Conservancy, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Juliana Barrett, left, and Beth Sullivan, the steward for the Avalonia Dodge Paddock, walk on the preserve, which is maintained by the Avalonia Land Conservancy, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Three separate grants from the state's Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition program will help the Avalonia Land Conservancy to increase the land it owns by nearly 700 acres.

The land trust, which will turn 50 years old in 2018, has used conservation easements and purchased land to preserve about 3,500 acres on nearly 100 properties, much of it wooded or coastal land in southeastern Connecticut, plus about 3 acres on South Dumpling Island in Long Island Sound and Sandy Point Nature Preserve, a barrier island in Little Narragansett Bay.

Late last year, the organization learned it had won a $555,000 grant from the state's Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition program, which distributes state bonding funds and money the state collects in the form of fees for the recording of land records to municipalities or conservation organizations.

The grant will help pay for up to 65 percent of the sale price of a 409-acre property known as the Tri-Town Ridgeline Forest, which straddles parts of Griswold, North Stonington and Preston. 

That grant follows two others from the Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition program that will cover up to 65 percent of the sale price of an 87-acre property in North Stonington and a 178-acre property in Preston.

The conservancy has not yet closed a sale on any of the three properties, and Director of Development Chuck Toal said negotations are ongoing.

"The final T's have not been crossed and the I's dotted," he said. "It's a long process — it's marathon, not a sprint."

The grants, distributed by the state to help local conservation organizations protect clean water and wildlife habitats, total $945,750, but the organization must raise hundreds of thousands more before it can purchase the three properties.

Toal said the land trust is hoping to complete the purchase of the three areas in the next year.

A loan from the environmental nonprofit organization The Conservation Fund will help Avalonia close on the 409-acre property in the next six months, he estimated, and the land trust is in the process of raising money to cover the cost of all three.

"We're seeking pledges and we're in the process of that capital campaign," he said.

The larger property, known as the Tri-Town Ridgeline Forest, is owned by a Tennessee developer. The two others are owned by families, he said. Avalonia members learned of each of the three properties separately and applied to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for three individual grants.

The organization must raise about $300,000 more through other grants and individual donations to complete the sale.

As a condition of the grants, all the conserved land must remain open to the public for recreation purposes. The additional land will further the land trust's goal of creating a connected swath of conserved land that will connnect from Pachaug State Forest — which sits in Voluntown, Sterling, Plainfield, Griswold, North Stonington, and Preston — to Mystic, where Avalonia maintains the Pequotsepos Brook Preserve.

"Connectivity is the key," Toal said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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