Saying it would preserve unique natural habitat and expand an important open space greenway, members of a nonprofit organization dedicated to land conservation in New Canaan on Tuesday night urged town officials to help their group with the timely purchase of a 6.35-acre property.
The would-be “Silvermine Fowler” preserve—a private property long owned by award-winning zoologist Jim Fowler and available to the New Canaan Land Trust right now in a $1.3 million deal—is accessible from Silvermine Road just below the intersection with Route 106. An east-west oriented parcel that climbs a wooded hill toward a natural pond, the property is contiguous to a 41-acre sanctuary that the Land Trust already owns (see map below).
Among privately raised funds, pledges and grants, the New Canaan Land Trust and Trust for Public Land—a national nonprofit organization headquartered in San Francisco—already have secured all but $365,000 needed to acquire the property. At this time, the organization has first right of refusal, though the offer is to expire in the first quarter of 2017, according to Land Trust officials.
The Fowler property “is the key for access” to the larger parcel “and this access way is important because [in] the Silvermine neighborhood, in order to access this property you must travel 1.7 miles by foot through the spaghetti street world of that area to get to the entrance over on Cedar [Lane],” Chris Schipper, immediate past president of the New Canaan Land Trust told members of the Board of Finance during the group’s regular meeting.
“So by creating this access way, we create a lane to a beautiful nature park and that 47 acres total would be equal to the largest open space holding we have,” he said at the meeting, held in Town Hall.
If acquired, the combined properties essentially would reassemble much of a single estate that had been owned by Alice and Clarence King and donated to Audubon in the 1950s, Schipper said.
“I think my line on that is it takes all the king’s men and all the king’s horses to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
And it takes money.
Schipper’s comments mark the first time that one of New Canaan’s major funding bodies heard from the Land Trust on the hopeful acquisition, as well as the first time in the 50-year history of the Land Trust—which owns and maintains 380 acres in town—that the organization has come to the town for money to buy land, Schipper said.
Ultimately, Board of Finance Vice Chairman Bob Spangler—who ran the meeting, in newly elected Chairman John Sheffield’s absence—recommended that the Land Trust continue its fundraising while the finance board considers the request, and that the Trust for Public Land put together a report detailing how funds already spent on the property acquisition break down.
Finance board members asked Schipper—joined in the Town Meeting Room by Trust for Public Land-Connecticut Director Walker Holmes and counsel Ben Weiland—when the purchase option from the Fowlers expires (Feb. 28), how conversations are going with other potential donors (there’s been renewed interest since a $160,000 “challenge grant” came in), what are the real estate taxes that are due through the next evaluation cycle (about $27,000), whether the Trust for Public Land expects or assumes a town contribution here (in the national organization’s experience, the municipality makes a contribution), under what realistic scenario the request of town funding could drop below $365,000 (the Land Trust has been beating the bushes for one year and the deal now is at risk), whether the town funding itself was being requested at this meeting (no, but at a future meeting and soon), how the challenge grant works (the donor is contributing $1 for every $2 raised, up to $160,000 from the donor), whether the sanctuary now is passive and unused (yes) and whether the preserve envisioned would be similar to the Watson/Symington Woodlands off Greenley Road (yes).
Given that the $1.3 million needed includes not only funds needed to purchase the Fowler property but also expenses related to preparing the site for public use (things like demolition of existing house, remediation, trail work), finance board member Colleen Baldwin asked whether $1,070,000 total alone would get the Land Trust to its “next step.”
Schipper said the funding is complicated because some of it depends on the Land Trust demonstrating that it has the full $1.3 million banked—for example, a state grant of $535,000 requires that the organization show it can deliver on promises to tear down the house and create publicly accessible parking and walkways.
The deal itself has been on the table for many months and Weiland added that there’s a rather pressing time element.
“The Fowler family [members] are committed to conservation and believe strongly in the impact of conservation,” Weiland said. “That said, if there are not real movements before that date [Feb. 28] and we do not have funds available, I do not feel totally comfortable going back to them. This is a real date for us.”
Schipper reviewed the history of the Land Trust’s fundraising and local support. Letters of support from town bodies including Planning & Zoning, Inland Wetlands and the Conservation Commission all formed part of a grant application last January to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, he said. In May, the Trust for Public Land helped the local organization kickstart a capital campaign, and work such as soil testing and removal of oil tanks took place over the summer. Last month, the state notified the Land Trust that it was approving the substantial grant, and the “challenge grant” came through last week, meaning some $700,000 has been secured outside of New Canaan.
First Selectman Rob Mallozzi clarified that when the Land Trust came to him one year ago, it was seeking support in words and spirit only, not a financial commitment.
“I encouraged them to ask for the full delta,” Mallozzi said.
“I thought this was more appropriate for our budget conversations, because in terms of our options as a town, we could bond this. Because it’s coming the way it is, and it is through no fault of theirs, but the fact is, our hands are a little bit tied because we are not on their time schedule and we will not have the financial options normally given when a big project of this size comes to us. I wanted to make sure that there is broad support from their neighbors to the property. We haven’t heard from them. I’m sure they are for it but the fact that it was portrayed that myself and John [Sheffield] were not too enthused about a funding conversation taking place was for good reason, because there are certain things we need for funding purposes that they could not provide without input from us. So I am delighted this took place. But I absolutely supported them coming to us for the delta. I think it’s an important piece of property for the town to consider. These folks have been unbelievably great stewards of land in our town. Particularly Chris and Art [Berry] have been phenomenal to work with. So we are here talking about the right things. The issue I have, the biggest hurdle I have is the priority of it all, and that is what gets lost, unfortunately, not through their fault but through the timing of this. We have sports groups before us, we are going to have school capital, I had a discussion with all my department heads about the pressures on the budget this year. Those all have to be put into context so the reluctance for the conversation for special appropriation was just that, because it’s coming at a crazy time. I do not think we have to bow to that but that was my biggest concern. Is this a worthwhile effort? Absolutely. Should we be funding in perpetuity a fund for open space. Absolutely. It’s important. That’s the kind of conversation I wish we were having so that they wouldn’t have to come to us for a special appropriation in December.”
The Fowler property and the abutting Hicks-Kelley Upland Sanctuary offer a wide range of wildlife and natural habitat. According to New Canaan Land Trust Executive Director Mike Johnson, animals include peepers/frogs, painted turtles, snakes, great blue heron, red-tailed hawks, owls, wood ducks, woodpeckers, mallards, numerous songbirds and migratory birds that use the land as a freshwater stopover. Species of trees range from American beech to red, black and pin oak, birch, hickory, hemlock, maple and white pine, Johnson said, and the property features various other shrubs and grasses and wildflowers starting in the spring.
Mallozzi in his comments voiced support for an inchoate “land acquisition fund” that would enable New Canaan to compete for preservation-worthy properties that become available for purchase. The need for such a mechanism emerged earlier this year, advocates say, when the water company moved to make sellable an 18.9-acre wooded parcel alongside the Noroton River—a property that town and Land Trust officials wanted to acquire but did not.