Conservation group hoping for last-minute intervention on Ledyard farm

Ledyard — A small group of residents who would like to preserve the former site of an historic farm is hoping for an eleventh-hour intervention before a local developer breaks ground on a 29-lot housing subdivision this spring.

The 54.5-acre property on Colonel Ledyard Highway, belonged to the Watrous family after it was willed to Nathan Watrous in 1925, according to a publication from the Ledyard Historical Society. A development company bought the land in 2009 for $360,000, sold three acres that included the property's farm house, and applied to the town's planning and zoning commission to create the town's first open-space subdivision.

The town's Planning and Zoning Commission approved the subdivision in 2016, despite the concerns of neighbors and Ledge Light Health District officials that the houses on the property would be too close together and that the construction would be disruptive.

The open space agreement requires the developer, Green Falls Associates, to leave 60 percent of the land undeveloped and concentrate new lots on one section of the property.

Two neighbors of the property appealed the commission's decision last spring but a New London Superior Court judge dismissed their appeal in November.

Now, members of a group called Friends of Watrous Farm are hoping for a last-minute buyer or conservation effort after they say their efforts to persuade local conservation groups and the federal government to cooperate on an effort to purchase it have not been successful.

"We're not stopping," said Anne Roberts-Pierson, a Ledyard conservation advocate. "We are fleshing out every possibility, every creative thing we can muster."

The group, which includes Roberts-Pierson and a handful of neighbors of the former Watrous Farm property, have attempted to convince everyone from officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to wealthy local landowners to help them acquire the property from Green Falls Associates.

Local conservation groups such as the Avalonia Land Conservancy and the Groton Open Space Association have supported the effort, but say that Green Falls developer Peter Gardner's asking price of $1.25 million is too high. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has rebuffed Roberts-Pierson's proposal that they incorporate adjacent land owned by The Nature Conservancy into the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, then offer Gardner money for the farmland.

The Watrous Farm land, or Quakertown Meadows, as the subdivision is known, lies just north of the line around a 38,208-acre area in Groton, Ledyard, North Stonington and Stonington that Fish and Wildlife said supports a core population of New England cottontail rabbits and where the wildlife service will pursue donations and conservation easements to acquire up to 3,500 acres of suitable lands.

But incorporating other properties not already in the approved refuge area is out of the question, said Mark Maghini, a realty manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast region.

"We're only looking at areas that are within the boundary that we published and shared with the public," Maghini said. "If it's outside the line we're really not in a position to consider it."

Within the next two months, Gardner said Monday, Green Falls Associates will break ground on the subdivision while 60 percent of the property's northern end will transfer into the town's ownership.

But the land is still on the market, and conservationists say there's still time for someone — either U.S. Fish and Wildlife or a private buyer — to take action.

Jon Day, who lives in the former Watrous Farm house that used to be a part of the property, said he has approached several potential buyers about purchasing the property from Green Falls.

"We have worked quite extensively to reach out to different individuals to see if they would be interested in preserving the property," he said. "It's just (that) the cost is prohibitive."

In addition to contributing to land conservation efforts that have preserved much of Ledyard and the surrounding towns as open space, Day said, keeping the property vacant would mean preserving a rural part of Ledyard in the face of increasing numbers of housing developments.

"The reason that I fell in love with Ledyard as a town was the open space (and) the farmland," he said. "It has this amazing heritage of a farm community. The loss of this farmland to a sort of not-very-remarkable development is, to me, a tragedy."

Gardner, one of three partners in Green Falls Associates, said Monday he'd be willing to sell if someone makes an offer.

"We are trying as hard as we can to show him the money," Roberts-Pierson said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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