Saving The Preserve is an amazing example of what’s possible when we fight together for the places we love.
A lot can happen in fifteen years. Children grow from babies to adults, wars are won and lost. In three small towns in southeastern Connecticut, fifteen years saw a long-shot fight to save the last great coastal forest in southern New England slowly gain momentum and ultimately succeed.
This week, the conservation sale that will protect The Preserve forever was finalized.
The gem known as The Preserve is a beautiful 1,000-acre piece of forest and wetland located in the three towns of Old Saybrook, Essex, and Westbrook near the mouth of the Connecticut River. For a decade-and-a-half, it was passed between various land holding companies, eventually ending up with River Sound Development LLC, owned by Lehman Brothers. Time and again, the developers proposed projects that would have turned trees into condos and woodland ponds into sand traps.
But just as persistent as the fight to develop the land was the fight to defend it. Many partners, including CFE, banded together to permanently protect the land once slated to become a golf course and luxury home development. Among them were the local citizens group Alliance for Sound area Planning (ASaP), local and state elected officials, the Connecticut Attorney General’s office, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Trust for Public Land, Audubon Connecticut, and The Nature Conservancy, among others.
Connecticut Fund for the Environment led the legal effort for a decade, making our case before the Connecticut Superior Court and Appellate Court, to wetlands commissions, and in planning and zoning hearings. We brought together scientists and experts from across the region who testified that the development proposals would endanger wildlife, rare plants, and water resources.
But the most inspiring part of the fight was the grassroots efforts and the victories won by the local citizens. Citizens packed hearing rooms for a decade. The average turnout for hearings in front of various commissions and committees was 60-120 residents at each—often after a full day at the office and often at multiple hearings a week. “Save the 1,000 Acre Forest” signs appeared all over the region, and a pro-development planning commissioner was ousted from office.
In 2013, two Essex residents sued in response to the latest development proposal. It was at this critical juncture that Lehman Brothers saw the way the wind was blowing and became willing to sit at the table and discuss a conservation sale. Plans were finalized in the summer of 2013 and the Trust for Public Land began fundraising for a public conservation purchase soon after.
Perhaps the highlight was the overwhelming victory in Old Saybrook’s July 2014 referendum. In an unprecedented voter turnout, the residents voted 2002-242 to provide $3 million in town funds for purchase of The Preserve. Residents of Essex followed a similar path only a week later.
Now might the time that you’re asking, why is this land so important? Why did so many people pour so many resources into saving it for so many years?
The proposals would have destroyed the last great coastal forest in New England, as well as the wildlife and recreational opportunities it supports. At night, the blackness of the 1,000-acre forest can be seen from the sky in the midst of the bright lights of the developed coastline. The 114 acres of wetlands are home to rare species included the Eastern Box Turtle and the Eastern Ribbon Snake. Migratory birds use the land as a safe stopping point along the Atlantic flyway.
The Preserve has vast and pristine water resources that will now remain clean and clear forever. Vernal pools—ponds that fill only in spring—characterize much of the landscape. One of them was described by a consulting expert as the most productive vernal pool he’d ever seen. Amphibian species are declining around the state as their habitat is lost and the climate changes, but in The Preserve the northern dusky salamander and the red-spotted newt are both thriving.
Recreational opportunities abound here too. The miles of hiking trails within in The Preserve itself connect to an existing network of town parkland and trails, allowing for easy and connected recreation throughout the region. The 1,000-acre forest is an ideal place to spend a day hiking, picnicking, bird-watching, and exploring the area’s natural beauty.
And with its permanent preservation, generations to come will be able to enjoy this unspoiled piece of nature.
We’re so happy and proud to know that The Preserve will not be destroyed to build a golf course and luxury houses but will be protected for wildlife and for future generations. Thank you and congratulations to all who have worked so long and hard over the last 15 years to make that dream a reality.