Guilford to preserve hundreds of acres

Saturday, October 25, 2008 7:32 AM EDT
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

GUILFORD — A rafter of wild turkeys greeted visitors and an immature bald eagle circled overhead Friday as local and state officials extolled the qualities of the East River Preserve.

The town announced that it has completed negotiations to purchase the more than 600-acre property near Clapboard Hill Road. After about six years of talks, the Board of Selectmen recently voted to pay the Goss family more than $14.3 million for the land, $3 million of which will be covered by federal grants. The purchase still must be voted on in a referendum.

Officials said that 577 acres of the parcel would remain as open space, while the town could eventually develop about 70 acres as playing fields or other facilities.

Without the town’s purchase, the land could have been subdivided for more than 100 houses; the owners had submitted plans to do so about three years ago, Land Acquisition Commission Chairman Gary MacElhiney said.

“It took a great commitment on (the Goss family’s) part to give up this land to the town knowing that the town would use it appropriately,” he said. “Their stewardship of this property has been tremendous and I only hope we have the ability to maintain it for future generations as they have for three generations.”

First Selectman Carl Balestracci said that George and Estelle Goss began purchasing land in the area in the 1920s and ’30s.

“Without their vision, without their working so hard to establish this, we would not have the opportunity that is before us today,” he said. “This property is like a real outdoors science center, as well as very beautiful.”

According to the agreement, the Goss family will retain about 33 acres of the land, which has three houses, and will have the ability to add another two houses on that parcel.

Several members of the family attended the ceremony Friday.

“The 15 wild turkeys that were in the field this morning, the herd of nine deer, the falcons, the Eastern coyotes, the bluebirds who were here this spring, the teeming menhaden and snapper blues, all have asked me to convey their support for this deal,” Dirck Goss said.

The land — the largest privately owned tract left in Guilford — includes wetlands and about two miles of shoreline along the East River, which flows south through the Audubon Society’s Salt Meadows Sanctuary into Long Island Sound. Tom Baptist, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, stressed the importance of the area for the health of the Sound and the salt marsh sharp-tailed sparrow, a threatened species that has a strong population in Guilford.

“It is one of the most ecologically important coastal properties left in Connecticut,” Baptist said.

Balestracci praised U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, for her assistance in obtaining a federal grant through the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program. DeLauro and the town’s legislative delegation in Hartford attended the event.

“During what is a hard and frantic time these days, this is an oasis of serenity,” DeLauro said.

The town will go to referendum for the additional $11.4 million needed to complete the sale, although Balestracci said he is also looking for other sources of funding such as state grants. He added that the referendum will probably take place just after Jan. 1.

Balestracci said he hopes voters will approve the referendum despite the adverse economic conditions, adding that keeping the land as open space obviates the need for schools, police and Public Works for homes there. He said the town could go to referendum more than once if the measure fails initially.

“In order to maintain the quality of life in our community, we need to balance the development and this is without question the most important and momentous acquisition for open space and municipal services land that we could possibly have,” he said. “Forgetting the value of the conservation and the preservation of the land, if you just want to talk dollars and cents, Guilford would suffer dramatically.”

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