Connecticut Landmarks has tried to sell Forge Farm before
Connecticut Landmarks has considered for many years the idea of selling historic Forge Farm in Stonington, and pocketing its substantial endowment, reaching the level of negotiations in 2009, when the preservation society began talking to the tenant, nonprofit Terra Firma Inc., about a sale.
Incredibly, to me anyway, the preservation society's opening offer to Terra Firma suggested the Stonington nonprofit farm — which was then paying rent, farming the land and hosting tours and programs for schoolchildren — give Landmarks the equivalent of the five-year average of the endowment, $1.3 million, plus some additional money, the amount not specified, to "compensate" the society for making the transfer.
The net result, according to an Oct. 19, 2009, letter from Dial Parrott, a Hartford lawyer and Landmarks trustee, to Brianne Casadei of Terra Firma, would give the property and restricted endowment funds to Terra Firma while the preservation society would get an equivalent amount of money in the endowment — unrestricted funds it could spend any way it wanted. The property had been left to Landmarks by the bequest of Charles and Virginia Berry.
In a cruel twist, Parrott tied the negotiations to the issue of renewing Terra Firma's lease.
"... I am certain that (Landmarks) would not terminate your lease while negotiations about the transfer of Forge Farm are ongoing," Parrott wrote.
I couldn't reach Parrott, who is retired from the Connecticut law firm Updike, Kelly & Spellacy.
I spoke Tuesday to Casadei, who told me the negotiations went on for some time. She said they ended essentially with a rejection of Terra Firma's final offer: to take the property, with its obligation to a Probate Court decree that it be preserved in accordance with the will, along with a $100,000 fund to correct a documented list of maintenance and infrastructure problems with the house. Landmarks would have kept the rest of the money.
Landmarks wanted to rid itself of the property and the responsibility while keeping the Berrys' money. It's a plan the organization apparently is pursuing again, talking to the office of Attorney General George Jepsen about the idea of selling the farm and keeping the endowment.
When I caught up with Casadei this week, at the trim and neat farm on Route 2 in North Stonington where Terra Firma is now headquartered, she told me that her landlord/tenant relationship deteriorated so badly by the time she moved out, at the end of 2016, that she calls it abusive.
She was holding a printout of a letter to The Day this week from Frederick C. Copeland Jr., chairman of the Landmarks board of trustees, responding to a column about the condition of the still-vacant Forge Farm. In the letter, he accused Terra Firma of "abandoning the property without notice."
Casadei told me the farm had hired a lawyer and stopped paying rent in the summer of that year, complaining about a long list of problems, including faulty wiring, plumbing, a furnace that kept shutting down and an oil tank leaking into the dirt basement.
After she sent an email to Landmarks on Dec. 19, 2016, saying the farm planned to be out at the end of the month, she said she was screamed at by Copeland in a phone call in which she said he ordered her to get out of the house immediately. She was crying by the end, she confessed.
"Our investment and commitment to the property has been completely one-sided ... The amount of attention the house needs is alarming. The list has not changed or been addressed, nor has Landmarks completed any routine maintenance on the house, furnace or property since 2013," she wrote.
Copeland, when I reached him Tuesday, said the tenant had failed to pay the rent for six months, and he denied neglect of the house.
"I think there are a lot of issues she wants to bring up, to explain why she didn't pay her rent and walked out on the lease," Copeland said.
Our conversation Tuesday was the first I had been able to reach him since writing about Forge Farm. He said he never received messages I left with Executive Director Sheryl Hack.
Copeland correctly noted that I mistakenly reported that an audit posted on the organization's website showed the endowment balance to be about $1 million. It was more than $1.4 million in that audit, at the end of March 2016, and is now about $1.5 million, he said.
I also was surprised to hear him say Tuesday he had not read a column first published online Monday, reporting that a former Landmarks president had complained to fellow trustees in 2008 that the society had committed "self-vandalism" at Forge Farm by replacing wooden windows and roof with vinyl and asphalt.
Copeland told me Tuesday that Forge Farm is not open to the public and "we are not managing it as an historic house."
Of course, this is precisely the question the attorney general must address and determine whether Landmarks has met the terms of the Berrys' wills, in which they directed that the money they left be used to maintain and preserve the 1750s house as an example of early American architecture and grounds.
I think it is clear they have not.
I hope the attorney general sees that the house is indeed transferred, to some worthy organization like Terra Firma or the Stonington Historical Society, and that the Berrys' money goes with it.
This is the opinion of David Collins.