Easton, Conn.: Embracing a Farming Culture-From the NY Times

cfe-new-york-times-symbolEaston, Conn.: Embracing a Farming Culture

NOV. 11, 2015

By LISA PREVOST

Patti and Allan Popp didn’t move to the rural town of Easton, Conn., to take up farming. They were simply searching for more privacy than they had at their previous home in Stratford. Ms. Popp happened to fall in love with a 1740 house in foreclosure along one of Easton’s main routes, Sport Hill Road.

But within a few years of arriving in town in 1997, Ms. Popp, who worked as an office manager for a doctor, and her husband, a landscaper, decided to take a gamble. Ms. Popp’s employer was retiring, and she was ready for something new. So, like many Eastonites before them, the Popps would try to earn a living from the land.

Living In

The learning curve, Ms. Popp said, was enormous, and in the early years, when trial and error slowly revealed what their soil was and was not suited for, Mr. Popp’s landscaping business kept them financially afloat. Several times, they came close to giving up. But today, 15 years after they first began clearing their land, their business, Sport Hill Farm, can be counted among Easton’s small but established ranks of successful farms, with three acres of its own and 35 acres leased elsewhere.
The community has “welcomed us here,” Ms. Popp said, “even though we are one of the newer farms.”

A town of roughly 7,500, Easton is a rarity among Fairfield County suburbs in that it is home to at least 20 farms of varying sizes, from part-time specialty operations to large-scale agritourism attractions. The town is still predominantly woodland, largely because the four reservoirs within its borders put much of the land out of bounds for development — the Aquarion Water Company is a major landowner and the largest taxpayer by far.

With so much of the town in the watershed, “there isn’t a tremendous amount of land for big agriculture,” said Irv Silverman, who owns the 50-acre Silverman’s Farm, which draws many thousands of visitors every year to its pick-your-own orchards, berry fields and petting zoo. “There are only five or six farms here that are substantial enough to have at least 30 or 40 acres. But a lot of other little farms have come into existence.”

Easton’s peaceful, rural feel was the primary draw for Angenette and Bill Lynch, who moved from Stamford with their two children last year. Ms. Lynch grew up in a small town in upstate New York, and Easton felt familiar.

When a four-bedroom house went on the market right next door to one of Mr. Lynch’s cousins, the couple jumped, paying slightly more than the asking price, to get it. Mr. Lynch’s commute into New York City, where he is chief operations officer for the Specialty Food Association, is longer, “but this location checks all his boxes in terms of where he wants to be living,” Ms. Lynch said. And they are happier with the public school system in Easton; in Stamford, they paid for parochial school.

Easton’s small-town atmosphere is reinforced by avid conservationism and strict zoning. Commercial development consists of not much more than a couple of convenience stores and a single sit-down restaurant, the Olde Blue Bird Inn, serving breakfast and lunch. The Blue Bird is popular for weekend brunch, but you have to bring your own vodka for your Bloody Mary — no place in Easton sells alcohol.

What You’ll Find

Although Easton covers 27 square miles, it has only around 2,500 households, which makes it far less dense than the rest of the county — 274 people per square mile, versus the county average of 1,468, according to state calculations. Easton is not on the Metro-North rail line, so New York City commuters typically drive to the station in downtown Fairfield.

Many residents work at the headquarters of General Electric, which sits just outside Easton’s border in Fairfield. The company’s announcement earlier this year that it is considering relocating outside Connecticut is a source of concern, although the effect of a move on the local housing market would depend on where G.E. relocated and whether the company moved some or all of its offices, said Gayle Worthington, an agent with William Raveis Real Estate who lives in Easton.

Lower Easton — defined as the section below the blinking yellow light in the town center at Beers and Sport Hill Roads, according to Ms. Worthington — has mostly one-acre zoning. Upper Easton has three-acre-minimum zoning.

There are no condominiums or apartment complexes. A controversial proposal by the Saddle Ridge development company for 99 housing units, a portion of them affordable, on about 124 acres in the three-acre zone is on appeal in state Superior Court, having been turned down by the town’s planning and zoning commission, said Adam Dunsby, the first selectman, who acts as the town’s chief executive.

What You’ll Pay

The roughly 120 homes on the market earlier this month were priced from $450,000 to $2.9 million. The bulk of the properties fell between $600,000 and $1 million.

The number of sales was down about 12 percent this year as of the end of September compared with a year earlier, according to Ms. Worthington. The median sales price of $595,000 is up slightly over last year, but is still 22 percent below the market high in 2006, she said.

Properties in Lower Easton tend to sell more quickly because of their proximity to Fairfield and the Merritt Parkway, said Kelly Higgins, an agent with Coldwell Banker. But over all, buyers who choose Easton are usually seeking more house for their money, relative to towns on the rail line, and a small-town lifestyle, she said.

Sixteen new houses are planned at Easton Woods, a 44-home subdivision developed in phases beginning in the late 1980s, according to Jeff Wright, the listing agent and the owner-broker of Re/Max Right Choice in Trumbull. Twelve lots of three acres and up are still available. The homes start at 4,000 square feet; prices range from $1.3 million to $2 million, Mr. Wright said.

What to Do

Easton has a senior center, a public library and a community center, which has a rock-climbing wall and a fitness center.

The 730-acre Trout Brook Valley Preserve, which extends into Weston, welcomes hikers, dogs and horseback riders to its trail system.

The Easton Parks and Recreation department runs a variety of after-school activities for children, as well as an extended-day program with drop-offs as early as 7 a.m. and pickups as late as 6 p.m.

The members-only Easton Racquet Club has tennis courts and a swimming pool.

The outdoor patio at the Easton Village Store, which offers a variety of takeout sandwiches, soups and prepared dishes, is a popular meeting place.

The Schools

Samuel Staples Elementary School, built in 2005 with a distinctive barnlike design, serves about 600 students in kindergarten through Grade 5, as well as about 30 preschoolers.

Helen Keller Middle School, for Grades 6 through 8, features a high-tech innovation lab, said Thomas H. McMorran, the schools superintendent.

Joel Barlow High School, which is in a separate school district shared with the town of Redding, serves just over 1,000 students and has a 98 percent graduation rate, Mr. McMorran said. SAT scores for the class of 2015 were 561 for reading, 567 for math and 561 for writing; state averages were 504, 506, and 504.

The Commute

The drive to the station in downtown Fairfield takes 15 to 25 minutes. Travel time to Grand Central during peak hours runs from around 70 to 90 minutes. A monthly rail pass is $354.76 purchased online.

The History

Mills once drove the Easton economy, but little evidence of that past remains. According to a history linked to the town website, in the late 19th century, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company began buying up land in Easton in order to secure water for that nearby city, where thriving factories were drawing people by the thousands. The waterside mill sites were chief among those acquisitions, and the buildings were demolished along the way.

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