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Stonington residents concerned about hunting on proposed conservation land

Stonington — A group of residents in the Al Harvey Road area are criticizing a plan by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to possibly allow hunting on land it plans to buy and preserve along with the town and Aquarion Water Co.

John Morris, a spokesman for the Al Harvey Road Conservancy, an ad hoc group of neighbors, said that in discussions with a fish & wildlife official, the agency indicated it plans to allow hunting on the 100 acres of the 220-acre site it will control. But he said the federal agency will not offer any information on what type of hunting will be allowed, when and where on the property it would occur and what steps would be taken to ensure the safety of neighbors or those who enter the property on its trails. He added First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough has been reluctant  to push for a public meeting to discuss the hunting issue because she doesn't want to derail the two-year effort to buy the land.

"If the town is putting up $300,000 (to help buy the land) don't people have the right to review the plan?" asked Morris.

Meanwhile, the Trust for Public Land is proceeding with its effort to buy the property for $1.15 million on behalf of the three parties and has an option that expires at the end of February 2022.

The 220 acres of forest known as the Brewster property sits over an aquifer and contains Copps Brook, which provides water to the Aquarion Water Co. reservoir. It also is contiguous with other preserved lands, is an important habitat for the once-threatened New England cottontail rabbit and sits within the boundaries of the Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. Plans call for conveying 100 acres of the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 120 acres to the Avalonia Land Conservancy after the purchase. Chesebrough said if the town and other partners do not buy the land and preserve it, it would go back on the market and could be developed into housing.

In March, the Board of Finance voted unanimously to contribute up to $300,000 from the town's $375,000 Open Space Fund toward the purchase from trustee Katherine Anne Brewster-Duffy. The plan also calls for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to contribute $580,000 and the Aquarion Water Co. another $230,000.

The prospect of hunting on the land was never mentioned when the parties outlined the project to the Board of Finance to gain approval for spending the $300,000.

Morris said this week that residents were annoyed the project had advanced this far and they had not heard about it. He added that in addition to the lack of information from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service about hunting on the property, residents were also upset the agency would not hold a public meeting with them and that the town was not trying to make such a meeting happen.

Morrris, who said he is a hunter, said he met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official Rick Potvin on the property and was told the agency would allow hunting there. If hunting is to be allowed, Morris said there should be information about how people would be prevented from accessing the land on trails during hunting periods, what kinds of hunting would be allowed, if warning signs would be erected and how close hunters could get to the boundaries of the property.

"These are all things we need to know about," he said.

In August, Morris sent a letter to the Trust for Public Land, Chesebrough and the Avalonia Land Conservancy expressing the desire of the Al Harvey Road Conservancy to assist in funding the acquisition of the three parcels and replacing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service role in the purchase due to what he called the "uncertain intentions" of the federal agency regarding conservation and use. He said the group would raise $600,000 in pledges to replace the U.S. Fish and Wildlife contribution and would be willing to increase its contribution to fund other expenses with the project. He said 30 people have signed the letter of intent. He said the group also would volunteer time to work on on the property. The group also has a petition at www.change.org

But Chesebrough said the Trust for Public Land has told the Al Harvey Road Conservancy that it would have to show that it has raised the amount of the Fish & Wildlife Service contribution in order to replace the agency.

"We don't want this deal to fall apart and have no conservation options," she said about the two-year effort to buy the land.

On Tuesday, Potvin explained that federal law requires the agency to consider six public uses for property it acquires including wildlife viewing, interpretation, environmental education, photography, fishing and hunting. But he said the agency typically determines the compatibility of these issues for the site after it acquires the land, and not before. At that time, he said the agency solicits public input on the uses. He added there is a possibility of soliciting pre-acquisition input, and that no determination has been made yet about whether hunting would be allowed on the site. Potvin also pointed out that hunting is a very safe activity, as very few people are injured while hunting in the state.

Chesebrough said Tuesday that she understands residents are concerned about hunting being allowed on the site and how it would be managed but that there is a federal process in place that is not that flexible.

"This is asking for a big leap of trust and I understand that's hard to give," she said.

Chesebrough said that she has asked about the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service holding a pre-acquisition meeting but has been told one has never taken place before.

j.wojtas@theday.com

 

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