Southeastern Connecticut towns benefit from conservation grant money

Several towns in southeastern Connecticut reaped the benefits of a portion of $9.1 million in state grants, awarded Monday, designating large swaths of land as open spaces.

Locally, a combined $3,787,200 was awarded to various organizations to preserve and protect land as open space in Groton, Montville, East Lyme and Ledyard. The effort, authorized under the state's Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Program, "provides financial assistance to municipalities and nonprofit land conservation organizations to acquire land for open space," according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's website.

A news release from Gov. Ned Lamont's office Wednesday said state funding from DEEP must be supplemented with matching funds or other grants from the sponsor, usually a nonprofit organization. It also stipulates that the purchased land requires a conservation easement, "a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values," per the Land Trust Alliance website.

"Open space is vital to environmental protection and a bright economic future for our state," Lamont said. "This program is an important component of preserving some of our state's best and most beautiful land, and by partnering with our municipalities and nonprofits we can ensure that these valuable resources are preserved in perpetuity for generations to come."

According to DEEP's website, "The State's goal is to protect 673,210 acres or 21% of Connecticut's land as open space by the year 2023. Ten percent of this open space is to be DEEP-owned as State parks, forests, and wildlife areas. The other 11% is to be owned by towns, private non-profit land conservation organizations, water companies, and the federal government."

The latest estimation has the state at more than 500,000 acres of the 673,210-acre goal.

Sponsor East Lyme Land Trust was awarded $179,200 for the Pattagansett River Watershed Reserve in East Lyme. The money will help buy 38.7 acres of open space. The property is enclosed by 3,000 acres of protected forest on three sides, and it plays an important role in the town's water supply.

"A wetland on the easterly boundary forms the headwaters of the Pattagansett Watershed, which supplies half of the drinking water for the Town of East Lyme," the release reads. The site has trail potential and features vernal pools, rock ledges and wetlands.

Arthur Carlson, who formed the land trust in 1971 and is the chairman of the town Conservation of Natural Resources Commission, has long stressed the importance of safeguarding upstream water supplies "to maximize the quality and quantity of drinking water at the lowest cost by preventing contamination," according to a 2019 report he co-authored. On Wednesday, he celebrated the state grant.

"By securing this land, we're securing the water quality, which can be damaged by so many chemicals in the environment," he said. "To protect a reservoir system, you need to protect the watershed it is in. We need to protect as much of the upstream characteristics as possible, and that's what making this land open space will do."

Carlson also mentioned rock climbing possibilities, guaranteed longevity of public land and a safe habitat for cottontail rabbits and birds as positives.

The Woodsmen Land Trust received $560,000 for the Nehantic Nature Preserve, spanning 320 acres. This land resides along the East Lyme/Montville border and is near the Nehantic State Forest. It includes an array of tree species such as red maple, black oak, American elm and shagbark hickory. The land trust intends to develop a hiking trail linking with Nehantic State Forest trails.

Stephen Harney, a member of the East Lyme Land Trust, said the group worked with the Woodsmen Land Trust on making the Nehantic Nature Preserve an open space. He explained the process of drawing up a grant application, and, after earning a grant, going about collecting matching funds. He said groups like the land trusts must seek funding from public sources, such as the town, as well as philanthropic groups and wealthy individuals.

"When you get a state grant, you get the credibility of being endorsed by DEEP," Harney said. "That arrow in your quiver makes it a lot easier to go to the philanthropic community to ask for money to match the grant. It's a process. For the East Lyme lands, we have some individuals who were waiting to see if we could get a state grant."

The Groton Open Space Association picked up $600,000 from the state for Sheep Farm South, comprising 103.49 acres. This acreage would be added to the existing sheep farm property. It brings the sheep farm property adjacent to more than 1,700 acres of existing open space. Access will be available from Flanders Road and Fort Hill Road, and the association is planning to build and connect trails on and close by the property.

In Ledyard, the Avalonia Land Conservancy will use $108,000 from the state for Maynard Farm, amounting to 99.82 acres. Maynard Farm abuts Avery Preserve and has 30 acres of wetlands streaming into Billings-Avery Brook and ultimately Morgan Reservoir. Groton, Preston and Ledyard use drinking water from the reservoir. The site contains a multitude of habitats and ecosystems, for instance an acidic Atlantic white cedar swamp and a red maple swamp, as well as a mixed hardwood forest. The property will be available for access at 32 Avery Hill Road and features 1.37 miles of trail.

The office of state Rep. Christine Conley, a Democrat who represents Groton and Ledyard, put out a news release about the soon-to-be open spaces in her district. "It goes without saying that we know how beautiful our towns are, and I'm excited that through these additional funds, the Groton Open Space Association and Avalonia Land Conservancy will be able to dedicate their time to making our natural resources more accessible to the wider community of Southeastern Connecticut," the statement read.

Of the 24 state grants, the largest, worth $2,340,000, was for The Bond Property in Montville, sponsored by the Avalonia Land Conservancy, encompassing 669 acres. This is the largest such grant the conservancy has received. 

The site had been used for gravel and sand extraction in the past. Due to its former purpose, specifically gravel extraction, the site has seen forest regrowth. Public uses will include fishing and paddling in flooded quarries, which can be accessed via dirt roads with parking areas. The property is flanked by the Barnes Reservoir to the north and the Bogue Brook Reservoir to the south.

Dennis Main, a board member of the Avalonia Land Conservancy and its finance chair, said the amount of matching funds from sponsoring groups depends on the situation. A customary number is 65 percent of the state funds, but that can fluctuate.

Just as Harney did, Main said the process of closing on the properties can take years. Also like Harney, he recognized land trusts and similar nonprofits as quasi-real estate agencies tasked with negotiating deals and taking care of the land after purchase.

Beyond The Bond Property's birding possibilities, which Main said are immense, he described how designated open space properties are significant for the state.

"Open spaces are open to the community and community-based passive recreation, basically in perpetuity as long as environmental values are maintained," Main said. "We manage the land with a specific purpose, and I would say the conservation work we do is pure."

s.spinella@theday.com

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