Open space proposal to go before East Lyme selectmen

East Lyme — A Massachusetts foundation wants the town to help pay to conserve about 166 acres of forest at the headwaters of the Niantic River.

The New England Forestry Foundation would manage the land under a sustainable forestry plan. In the past, land in that area was part of the greenway plan accompanying a design for the long-stalled extension of Route 11.

The proposal to preserve the undeveloped parcel, with an entrance at 29 Goldfinch Terrace, is slated to come before the Board of Selectmen Wednesday. The selectmen heard presentations on the open-space proposal last year and again this spring but have not taken a vote.

The parcel, adjacent to the Heritage at East Lyme subdivision, is north of Interstate 95 near the town's border with Waterford.

The proposal asks the town to contribute $350,000 for the parcel, part of a 200-acre property owned by KSK Associates LLC. A $500,000 state grant and the foundation would cover the remainder. KSK is asking $1.225 million, said managing member Stephen Harney.

The New England Forestry Foundation would own the land, to be called the Niantic River Headwaters Preserve, while the state and town would hold conservation easements on the property.

Harney, who serves as the chairman of the town's Board of Finance, said he will recuse himself if the proposal reaches the finance board.

The New England Forestry Foundation owns more than 26,000 acres and holds conservation easements on more than 1,145,000 acres in New England, according to its website. In Connecticut, the foundation owns land in Pomfret, Woodstock and East Hartland, as well as six conservation easements that cover 968 acres. 

Whitney Beals, the foundation's director of land protection, said the foundation thinks it's important to do work in this part of the state and is particularly interested in the property because it is near undeveloped land to its east and north.

"Over time we might be able to expand the Niantic River Headwater Preserve by additional acreage, which would benefit the watershed and the people in the area by having more land under protection," said Beals.

Proponents of conserving the parcel say the area is key for water quality in the Niantic River.

The town's Natural Resources Commission endorsed preserving the parcel and sent an April 29 memorandum from Chairman Arthur D. Carlson to the selectmen.

The memo draws comparison between the Niantic River Headwaters Preserve and the Oswegatchie Hills not far to its south. The town signed an agreement this month with Landmark Development to try to find land to swap for Landmark's 236-acre property in the Oswegatchie Hills. Landmark's petition to rezone part of its property as an affordable housing district will go to public hearing on Thursday.

The memo  from the Natural Resources Commission states both properties are within the same watershed and, as undeveloped parcels, have only clean runoff entering the Niantic River and then Long Island Sound.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection issued a notification about the grant for the headwaters parcel in 2012, but funds will not be applied unless the matching funds are raised. DEEP said the property scored high with town and regional support, and the project is consistent with the local and state plans of conservation and development.

The state's goal is to have 21 percent of its land held in open space, both as state-owned property and property owned by third parties, by 2023.

"The department sees this property as having all kinds of recreational opportunities in an area we are interested in preserving, and it provides great protection for Latimer Brook, Gurley Brook and the Niantic River," said Graham Stevens, the director of DEEP's Land Acquisition and Management unit. The Niantic River has some pollution that could stem from run-off or septic systems.

The selectmen, who have asked questions about the proposal's details, recommended the foundation hold information sessions in town, but that has not happened.

The parcel was once part of a larger open space proposal through the Woodsmen Land Trust of Old Saybrook. The selectmen never moved forward with that proposal, which also included land near the town's 301-acre open space parcel by Darrow Pond. 

If the headwaters land were acquired, the foundation would first conduct an inventory of the land's natural resources and forest cover and determine the best place for public trails and develop a forest management plan, said Beals. The foundation also wants to install an outdoor classroom. 

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

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