THE STORY OF TROUT BROOK VALLEY

Oh beautiful, for open space
Preserving Easton, part two
By Laura Modlin, Correspondent on July 15, 2015 in Connecticut News, Features, Lead News, News, Town Government · 3 Comments

Bruce LePage in Easton’s portion of the 1,009 acres composing Trout Brook Valley, sometimes refered to as the lungs of Fairfield County. —Photo by Laura Modlin

If bulldozers are South Park Avenue’s fate it won’t just impact sparkling waterways and vast unspoiled stretches of land — it would also crush more than four decades of vigorous work by Easton conservationists.

Preservation of the property might seem like a pipe dream, what with the town’s first selectman, Adam Dunsby, seemingly set on selling the land – but, many of these same people faced a similar scenario two decades ago with a much larger piece of untamed terrain — Trout Brook Valley.

And they won out against all odds back then.

How it happened

The story of Trout Brook Valley began, as many notable Easton stories do, with a reservoir.

Between 1913 and 1940, Bridgeport Hydraulic Company purchased 730.26 acres in Easton and Weston that were destined to become the majority of the present day 1,009-acre Trout Brook Valley Conservation Area.

The water company obtained the land to have the option to build a dam across the southerly neck of the valley — and then flood the property, increasing storage for the adjacent Saugatuck Reservoir.

Demand for water in the greater Bridgeport area ended up declining, though, and the water company decided holding onto the property was not worth the cost.

“We learned the water company wanted to sell in ’93,” resident Gail Bromer, who was at the forefront of efforts to preserve the property, said.

“It was totally pristine land,” Princie Falkenhagen, then president of Citizens for Easton (CFE), said.

Bromer and Falkenhagen, along with several others, were already working on a special task force doing an inventory of open space land in town.

“We got involved in trying to preserve Trout Brook Valley,” Bromer said.

And they picked up a lot of individuals and groups along the way.

In May 1994, resident Bruce LePage, then executive director of Aspetuck Land Trust, got a call from Jack McGregor, chairman of the water company, to meet for lunch.

At the time, 330 acres of the land was being considered for homes and 400 acres for a golf course. The water company wanted to know if Aspetuck Land Trust would buy the 400-acre portion instead.

At a cost of about $7 million.

“We couldn’t [afford to] do that,” LePage said.

But Aspetuck Land Trust did jump on board with conservation efforts already going on.

“It was a huge, long drawn-out process,” Bromer said.

They went on faith.

“We just assumed it would be preserved,” Bromer said.

Plot twists

In February 1997, the water company announced it had signed a contract to sell the land for development.

The conservationists did not give in to defeat, though.

Members of The Coalition to Preserve Trout Brook Valley, founded by Falkenhagen and Bromer, became even more determined to save the sprawling array of forest, wetlands, fields, pools, brooks, streams and wild life. The Aspetuck Land Trust was right by their side.

“We talked to everyone we could think of who might be able to preserve Trout Brook Valley,” Bromer said.

The development plan had to go through Easton’s Planning & Zoning Commission and Conservation Commission.

“We arranged for lawyers and soil scientists to testify,” LePage said.

But they came to believe that buying the land was the way to go.

Under section 16-50c of the CT General Statutes, the town in which a public utility sells land has a right of first refusal. Land trusts also have a right of first refusal.

So, even though the property was already sold, Easton, Weston and The Aspetuck Land Trust could try and qualify to buy it.

Only Weston and the Aspetuck Land Trust sent letters seeking right of first refusal.

The total purchase price would be $12.1 million.

“I didn’t think we’d have the money, but this first step didn’t commit us,” LePage said.

Then-Governor John Rowland was in the process of setting up an Open Space Land Acquisition Fund, and so 50% of the purchase price could potentially be paid for by the state.

“We had the right governor at the right time in support of it,” Bromer said.

Who’s in?

By October 1997, The Coalition to Preserve Trout Brook Valley, together with the Aspetuck Land Trust, was fund raising — and Aspetuck Land Trust became keeper of the donations for the Easton portion.

Weston committed $845,000 for the 44.56 acres of Trout Brook Valley in their town.

Easton was asked to contribute $2 million toward the 685.70 acres in town.

Tony Colonnese, first selectman of Easton at the time, felt that development at Trout Brook Valley was better for the town than preservation of the land.

Later that year, the reins of the town switched to Bill Kupinse when he was elected as first selectman. He got on board with preservation.

“He said, go ahead, try,” Falkenhagen said.

Not that the group needed much encouragement.

“Our philosophy was, we’re all lucky enough to live in a watershed town,” Falkenhagen said. “But with that comes the obligation to preserve the land. It’s our job.”

Colonnese later became one of the preservationists’ biggest allies.

Serendipity

Things were slowly moving along when one day the group heard from a new voice.

Paul Newman.

He wanted to commit $100,000 a year for five years out of Newman’s Own brand. It turned out his daughters used to ride horses on the property and talked their father into it.

In February 1998, donations were building, but there still wasn’t enough.

Enter the Nature Conservancy.

They had been approached initially but were not interested. Now, with a new head of their Connecticut chapter wanting to get involved, they came through.

Tick tock, tick tock

In the end, the state of Connecticut committed $6 million for the land, and the rest was raised by the Nature Conservancy, Aspetuck Land Trust, the Coalition to Preserve Trout Brook Valley and several individuals and smaller groups.

So there would be enough money, but some of it was committed over three or four years, according to LePage.

In order to be able to pay for the property, the Nature Conservancy gave a loan for the balance that had not come in yet.

And on Sept. 2, 1999, BHC Company (formerly Bridgeport Hydraulic Company) sold the 685.70 acres in Easton to Aspetuck Land Trust and Weston bought its 44.56 acres.

Ruth Bedford of Easton owned properties to the north and south of that land. She donated them to the Aspetuck Land Trust, bringing the total of Trout Brook Valley up to 1,009 acres.

“It was the perfect storm in the best sense,” Bromer said.

What about Easton?

In order for Easton to vote on committing the $2 million, the board of finance had to officially recommend the vote. But Andy Kachele, finance board chairman at the time, thought it was a bad idea.

Kachele eventually came around, too.

By that time, though, money for the property was raised, and it would be purchased regardless of Easton’s participation.

The town voted no by a slim margin.

“I always felt bad we didn’t pay our share,” Kupinse said.

“We all did,” Bromer said.

Easton purchased some property at the time, though.

The intersection of rt. 136 and rt. 58, considered one of the gateways to Easton and known as The Four Corners. —Photo by Laura Modlin
The intersection of rt. 136 and rt. 58, considered one of the gateways to Easton and known as The Four Corners. —Photo by Laura Modlin
The land at the intersection at Routes 136 and 58, known as The Four Corners, was also in danger of development. Conservationists had been working to raise money to buy those parcels, too.

Easton bought one of the corners, included in the deal with BHC Company, with $160,000 raised by residents. Coming into town from Fairfield on Route 58, it is the near corner on the left.

Two of the other corners are owned by the Aspetuck Land Trust, and one is owned by Aquarion Water Company.

Why bother?

Kupinse has often referred to Easton as “the jewel of Fairfield County.”

“There is no place like Easton,” he said in a recent interview.

He has always felt a need to draw a line in the sand against any development, a sentiment Dunsby appeared to echo in a statement in The Courier during his campaign for first selectman in 2013.

“…the Easton we enjoy requires vigilance,” Dunsby’s Oct. 3, 2013 statement said. He warned of ongoing attempts at commercial and residential development that could break zoning and “take us down a path of inappropriate development.”

Kupinse said that all CFE (he is a board member) had to do was not fight development and the town would look much different.

“I have no doubt,” Kupinse said.

He speculates that if conservationists had not taken a stand all these years, there would be more commercial development around Silverman’s Farm and Greiser’s Store. And pockets of intense residential development, perhaps even townhouses and semi-high rises.

South Park Avenue

In the group’s 2015 annual newsletter, Verne Gay, CFE president, wrote an overview of the South Park Avenue situation. The group was formed in 1972 to protect against development of the same land.

“Any move to sell the property at this time is shortsighted,” he said. “Developers’ assurances are simply instruments of convenience — for them.”

He said those assurances can be “reordered at the stroke of a pen.”

Gay said that any tax dollars recaptured would be modest and not worth it.

“What is permitted on the South Park property won’t necessarily stay on the South Park property,” he said. “Precedence is a dangerous wedge that will be used to open the door to projects which do not comply with our zoning.”

Easton’s three-man Board of Selectmen has the power to sell the property without a town vote.

“CFE urges our town leaders to move forward with care and deliberation,” Gay said.

To learn more about CFE and their preservation efforts, visit citizensforeaston.org.

Learn more about Trout Brook Valley and the Aspetuck Land Trust at Aspetucklandtrust.org

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