It takes a coalition to preserve “The Preserve”

As we approach the final votes to protect The Preserve, our Curt Johnson reflects on the contributions of many.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a coalition of local activists, statewide conservation organizations, and dedicated local and state leaders to save a forest. The 1,000-acre woods in Old Saybrook, known as the Preserve, is the largest unprotected coastal forest between New York City and Cape Cod. Home to bobcats and the site of an Atlantic White Cedar swamp, and a resting place for thousands of migratory birds, this land is a remnant of the wild and pristine lands common here centuries ago.

The Oyster River, whose headwaters originate in The Preserve. Photo by Robert Lorenz.
The Oyster River, whose headwaters originate in The Preserve. Photo by Robert Lorenz.

The story is as old as David and Goliath – a giant financial institution, Lehman Brothers, invests untold thousands to convince Old Saybrook’s land use commissions that 224 housing units and an 18 hole championship golf course were just what the Town needed. When I first met with local opponents, they were a band of a dozen citizen leaders of the all-volunteer Old Saybrook organization, The Alliance for Sound Area Planning (ASaP), exhausted from battling an earlier development proposed for the land and now daunted by a sophisticated army of lawyers and engineers with slick renderings.

I like to think of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment as the legal and technical glue that held together the opposition effort. Attorney Charles Rothenberger probably spent 60 nights at inland wetland and zoning hearings presenting the expert witnesses – ecologists and other scientists volunteering their time, for the most part – who testified to the extraordinary wetland and ecological damage Lehman proposed. Our members financed a decade of legal battles that went all the way up to our State Appeals Court. And a statewide group like ours could highlight this as a regional issue.

But I cannot overstate the level of commitment from hundreds of ordinary Old Saybrook citizens who joined ASaP and stood the course, showing up night after night – often after a full day at work – at hearings to voice their dream of seeing this last coastal forest protected for their grandkids to enjoy. They placed hundreds of “Save the 1,000 Acre Forest” signs on their front lawns. They let their Selectmen know that this forest mattered to them when they saw them at the grocery store. And they used our most prized right – the right to vote – to oust a pro-development planning commissioner.

Then-Attorney General Dick Blumenthal speaking at a public meeting in 2004. Photo by Robert Lorenz.
Then-Attorney General Dick Blumenthal speaking at a public meeting in 2004. Photo by Robert Lorenz.

And of course, important elected officials stepped out and led this fight. When then-Attorney General Dick Blumenthal showed up at local hearings and town meetings to champion the fight, what a boost! Phil Miller, then First Selectman of Essex, was not only a fabulous ecological spokesman for the forest, but convinced his town to invest legal firepower in the fight to protect a regional treasure. The entire legislative delegation from Old Saybrook has been wonderfully supportive.

And I would be remiss not to recognize that our inland wetland regulatory process worked. After weeks of hearings and discussion, it all came down to that one vote. Lehman was convinced they had it in the bag. We were very concerned.  The vote came down as the narrowest of rejections. But rejection it was – and at that moment the sails of conservation were filled for the first time in years, and they never emptied afterward. Lehman fought the decision all the way to the Appeals Court, but failed at every step.

Which led to a worn down Lehman, willing to sit at the negotiating table. The Trust for Public Land spent untold hours working through sticky issues of price and interest. At last an agreement was reached – Old Saybrook and the state would buy the property, to be owned by the public, and it would be permanently protected from development.

TPL has done a remarkable job, leading the charge to raise public and private funding for the past year, with great success. The Governor and the CT DEEP commissioners Esty and Klee have strongly supported investing state open space funds in this purchase, leading to a successful vote from our state legislature.

We’re close to the finish line, and the wind is strong at our backs. The Town of Old Saybrook now needs to pass a referendum. Get out and vote to save the last great coastal forest.

The Old Saybrook Board of Selectmen has set Tuesday, July 8, as the date for the public referendum on the appropriation of $3 million toward the purchase of Old Saybrook’s portion of the 1,000 acre forest. Old Saybrook residents will be able to vote on the measure from 12 noon to 8 p.m. at the Old Saybrook High School Gymnasium.  Please help spread the word to your neighbors and friends in Old Saybrook to vote “Yes” on July 8th!

Save the Sound's Curt Johnson presenting about The Preserve at a public meeting. Photo by Robert Lorenz.
Save the Sound’s Curt Johnson presenting about The Preserve at a public meeting. Photo by Robert Lorenz.

Preceding the referendum, a Town Meeting will be held on Monday, June 30, at 7 p.m. at the Old Saybrook Middle School on Sheffield Street. Please come and voice your support, no matter where you live—we need a full house!

It is only in partnership with our neighbors near and far—the Towns of Old Saybrook, Essex, and Westbrook, the Old Saybrook and Essex Land Trusts, the Trust for Public Land, Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Audubon Connecticut, The Nature Conservancy, community members, and other organizations—that we can save this precious forest.

Posted by Curt Johnson, executive director of Save the Sound, a program of CFE.

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