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Ledyard residents vote to transfer Founders Preserve property to Avalonia

Ledyard — After a sparsely attended but lively public hearing, residents voted 26-8 in a town meeting Wednesday night to transfer a former development property off Colonel Ledyard Highway to Avalonia Land Conservancy.

The public hearing and the town meeting were both held virtually.

Under the transfer agreement, Avalonia would protect the land in perpetuity and allow for passive recreation, such as hiking, on it. Conditions of the transfer include Avalonia subdividing off a house currently on the road edge of the property, allowing bow hunting by lottery per town ordinance and agreeing to transfer the property back to the town if the organization later decides it no longer can or wants to own it.

The 96.5-acre property, known as Founders Preserve, had been the town's first conservation subdivision and was approved in 2007; more than half of the property was to be left as open space. The developer filed an appeal the next month, saying conditions made by the Planning Commission, which included reducing the originally proposed 39 lots to 35 then to 32 and requiring an archaeological study, reduced the value of the property.

The land was never developed, and the town foreclosed on it. The property includes a 20-acre lake that has become a popular nesting site for herons, and stonework believed to be of indigenous origin. It was also a former settlement of the Rogerene Quakers.

In a brief presentation before the public hearing, Town Councilor Kevin Dombrowski said the town looked into transferring the property to Avalonia because the organization has been a good steward of other properties transferred from the town in the past. The Planning and Zoning Commission and Conservation Commission also voted to support the transfer in their respective meetings earlier this month.

All but one comment at the hearing was in favor of preserving the land; resident Eric Treaster said he'd rather see all tax- and revenue-generating options exhausted, including selling the property for development into age-restricted housing or a golf course or renting it to a farm, before giving it away.

Several residents called Founders Preserve a "treasure," not only to the town but also to the region because of its ecological and historical significance. Jamie Vaudrey, a professor at the University of Connecticut, stressed the importance of keeping large properties like this intact for water quality and carbon sequestration — the trapping of carbon dioxide to prevent it from entering the atmosphere to delay or prevent climate change. Mike Cherry, who had been on the Planning Commission when the development was proposed, said this was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to preserve a piece of history.

Anne Roberts-Pierson suggested delaying the town meeting so the town could look into selling or transferring the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, approved by Congress in 2016 and started with a property in North Stonington earlier this year, was designated to protect shrubland habitat for native animals including the New England cottontail rabbit.

Citing a letter submitted to the town by Mark Maghini, chief of the service's realty division based in Massachusetts, she noted that the service had expressed interest in the property a few years ago but talks stalled at the town level.

Access to the property was also a concern. In past discussions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as at the public hearing, residents on adjacent properties on Pumpkin Hill Road, Paint Mill Pentway and the Cranwood neighborhood had spoken out against increased traffic on their roads and possible clear-cutting required to maintain the shrubland habitat.

Julie DuPont-Woody, vice president of Avalonia and a Gales Ferry resident, said the board of directors will vote at its meeting next month whether to accept the transfer, though the organization's Ledyard-specific and acquisitions committees already voted in support of the transfer if it came through. She said it's clear the preservation of the property is important to the town, and this is a continuation of Avalonia's ongoing partnership with the town for protecting open space.

Once Avalonia owns Founders Preserve, she said it will develop a comprehensive management plan to govern how the property's varied habitats and historical sites will be maintained and preserved. She said the town's bow hunting condition is new territory for the organization, but it's important to recognize how bow hunting and other uses of the property can coexist with proper precautions.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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