The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday signaled its support for a local nonprofit organization’s purchase of an antique house on Valley Road.
Though the selectmen will wait for Conservation Commission approval before formally voting on the New Canaan Land Trust’s purchase of the ca. 1750-built home at 1124 Valley Road, the elected body voted 3-0 during its regular meeting to state its intent to support the purchase with a $150,000 town contribution.
The money is expected come from the Land Acquisition Fund, established in 2017, and will require further approval from the Board of Finance and Town Council, officials said.
The Land Trust plans to sign a purchase-and-sale agreement within about one week, and to complete the property transfer in September, according to the president of organization’s Board of Directors, Tom Cronin.
The current owner of the red-painted house that stands near the Grupes Reservoir in northeastern New Canaan, the First Taxing District of Norwalk, purchased the four-acre property at number 1124 in 2006 and “now, through some negotiations, are willing to sell the ‘Grupes House’ to the New Canaan Land Trust,” Cronin told the selectmen during their meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
“We originally offered to buy the house and the footprint underneath the house and some frontage which would link us to the wildlife preserve directly north of the property,” Cronin said. “To be honest, the transaction amount was a little underwhelming when we offered to the First District. So they asked for additional money and we said that was possible if they were able to provide additional acreage beyond the footprint of the house. So they did offer an additional acre with the transaction. Of course, we’re going to require additional funds for the Land Trust. So right now we’re in negotiations. We have a few contingencies as far as managing the final sale. They’re very minor—gates, fencing, et cetera. We’re in the process of lining up the funding on the transaction, which should take place some time in September.”
Selectmen Kathleen Corbet and Nick Williams, and First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, voted 3-0 on a motion signaling their intention to support a town contribution of $150,000 from the Land Acquisition Fund toward the estimated $750,000 overall sale, subject to final negotiations. Specifically, the town’s contribution would go toward the purchase of an additional one acre of property that will connect the parcel to the Land Trust’s 10.4-acre Browne Preserve, Moynihan said. An original proposal to have a “narrow strip of property connecting the two to make it a legal transaction” was deemed ineffective as a connection between the two properties, Moynihan said.
“This makes the transaction a lot more useful for the Land Trust to be able to connect to their 10-and-a-half acres,” he said.
The prospect of selling the house to the Land Trust is the result of the water company’s effort to improve relations between the First Taxing District and town of New Canaan, Moynihan said.
The house is to be used as the Land Trust’s headquarters as well as a residence for the organization’s executive director, Cronin said.
Conservation Commission Chair Chris Schipper, who joined Cronin and Land Trust Executive Director John Winter in presenting to the selectmen, noted that the Land Acquisition Fund since it was created has only managed to accumulate $150,000 “because we haven’t solved a consistent funding mechanism for it.”
There’s a request to put $100,000 of town money back into the Land Acquisition Fund, though that has yet to be approved by the Board of Finance and Town Council, officials said.
“They’re still looking at funding mechanisms,” Schipper said.
The Town Council is scheduled to discuss the matter during a public hearing on Wednesday night.
Art Berry, treasurer of the Land Trust, during a public comment period at the start of the meeting suggested the town set aside a percentage of conveyance fees collected by the town during property transfers in order to continuously build the Land Acquisition Fund.
Williams said of the proposed transaction, “I’m supportive of this and have been in the past.”
Schipper said that the Land Trust has two large supporters who are expected to help the organization, together with the town, get to the $750,000 mark.
“With your support, we believe we would’ve the funding stacked and complete and sign the P&S [purchase-and-sale agreement],” he said.
Beyond that purchase, funds would be needed to help restore and maintain the structure itself, he said, and the Land Trust would launch a capital campaign to prepare an endowment fund to that end.
Moynihan said the town appreciates “the very cooperative attitude that we’re getting from the First Taxing District.”
“They service a number of New Canaan residents down Valley Road,” he said, adding that the First Taxing District is showing good will to the town.
“We appreciate that,” Moynihan said.
The house at 1124 Valley had been slated for demolition just five years ago. At the time, representatives for the First Taxing District said it was too expensive to maintain and insure it. The so-called “Grupe-Nichols-Brown House” had hit the market at $2.25 million two years prior—that’s how much the first taxing district of Norwalk paid for the property in 2006.
Historic preservationists and open space advocates kept a close eye on it, saying the property is key to the reservoir “viewshed.”
The town, with a funding commitment from the Land Trust, had already offered to acquire the property for $1.2 million. But the property’s owner rejected that offer. After applying for a demolition permit in 2018 and then withdrawing that application, the Taxing District rejected another offer from the town, to purchase just the house with .8 acres carved out around it, for $250,000—a figure New Canaan arrived at following an appraisal of the property.
Local preservationists in making a case for forestalling demolition said the house has historic value. In a formal objection letter to the planned demo, town resident Mimi Findlay of the New Canaan Preservation Alliance noted that a Historical Society-commissioned report found that “the first record of this property was in 1761 when Caleb St. John purchased 10 acres ‘with appurtenances’ from Elizabeth Everett, later buying more land, but no dwelling house from her, selling it to her son Joseph in 1795.”
The history continued: “Joseph Everett was a farmer who had married, as his second wife, Hannah St. John, in the Congregational Church, and had seven children. When Joseph died in 1804 his oldest child, Esther, who was married to Silas Whitlock at the time, inherited the property. The remaining architectural features from this Federal period structure consist of a basement cooking hearth, a stone foundation and hand hewn posts and beams, indicating a one story, one-room cottage. There is no bake-oven in the basement fireplace, although there may have been one in a fireplace above it, now covered over or removed. It is possible that the owners, the Everetts, did not live in this cottage or perhaps were tenant farmers on a larger farm.”