GOSA Seeks To Join Merritt In Legal Battle With Developer Ravenswood (With Update)

NEW LONDON–The Groton Open Space Association has filed a motion to join F.L. Merritt Inc. as a defendant in a suit filed against Merritt by Ravenswood Construction LLC, a developer based in Cheshire, CT. The motion by GOSA Atty. Paulann Sheets was granted in New London Superior Court Monday morning, Sept. 29, 2003, after Paul Geraghty, an attorney representing Ravenswood, said he wouldn’t oppose it.

As previously reported, Ravenswood has sued seeking to compel Merritt to sell to Ravenswood a 75-acre tract of land on Fort Hill in the Town of Groton. Last April 14, GOSA and Merritt signed a contract for Merritt to sell the tract to GOSA for $1 million.

Ravenswood doesn’t claim to have a signed contract but has put forward an argument that it in effect has a contract. In June, the Cheshire-based developer filed a “SLAPP” suit against GOSA and nine individuals who had appealed the Groton Planning Commission’s approval of a 48-house subdivision on the Merritt Property. Ravenswood withdrew the action after being threatened with a countersuit by GOSA Attorney Paulann Sheets. SLAPP is a derogatory term for such suits, aimed at citizens who oppose developers.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.

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Would-be Merritt Property Developers Drop SLAPP Suit Against GOSA

GROTON–Developers have unconditionally withdrawn their SLAPP suit against Groton Open Space Association.

The developers–operating as Mystic Estates Partners of New London and Ravenswood Construction LLC of Cheshire–had received two demands from GOSA’s attorney, Paulann H. Sheets, to drop the action or face a suit themselves. The suit against GOSA was formally terminated July 25, 2003. Earlier, the developers had halted proceedings against nine individuals named in the original suit.

Mystic Estates Partners and Ravenswood Construction had alleged in the June 5, 2003, suit that GOSA and the nine individuals abused the legal process and interfered with contractual relationships by appealing, in early 2002, the Groton Planning Commission’s approval of a subdivision on the Merritt property. Following the appeal, GOSA learned that the 75-acre property was again on the market. It negotiated with the owner, and signed a contract April 14, 2003, to buy the tract between Fort Hill and Fishtown Road for $1 million.

GOSA intends to name the property The Merritt Family Forest in honor of the selling family.

Commenting on the withdrawal, Priscilla Pratt, GOSA president, said: “This is a great day for citizens everywhere in Connecticut because the plaintiffs correctly saw that they can’t sue us just for exercising our democratic legal rights.” Ms. Sheets noted that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment had been just a day away from announcing their intention to support GOSA in court when news of the withdrawal reached her.

The term “SLAPP” in connection with developers’ suits against citizens who oppose plans in public proceedings is an acronyn for “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.”

Still unresolved is a suit filed April 15, 2003, by Ravenswood Construction against F.L. Merritt Inc. seeking to prevent Merritt from selling to GOSA. Ravenswood contends that it in effect had a prior contract to buy the property, though it does not claim to be in possession of a signed contract.

Attorney General Blumenthal’s office released a statement three days after the withdrawal that said: “We need more, not less, participation by ordinary citizens in decisions affecting their lives and communities. Lawsuits like the one brought against GOSA and nine citizens directly attack citizen involvement…and must be steadfastly fought.” The state attorney general added that GOSA received a $650,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection on April 8, 2003, toward purchase of the Merritt property. “This is a striking endorsement of GOSA’s view that it should be preserved,” the state attorney general said.

Curt Johnson, senior staff attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said: “Any party that presents a case as GOSA did, with expert testimony about the environmental impacts of development, has the right to appeal an adverse decision by a land use board. As important as the First Amendment, the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act gives the citizens the power to protect the state’s air, land and water. This suit by the developers was an attack on that right, and CFE would have gone to court with GOSA and the attorney general to defend it.”

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Cheshire Builder Challenges GOSA’s Signed Accord with F.L. Merritt

GROTON–An out-of-town developer is challenging the right of F.L. Merritt, Inc. to sell a 75-acre tract of land it owns on Fort Hill to the Groton Open Space Association.

Ravenswood Construction LLC, of Cheshire, charged in a suit against F.L. Merritt filed April 15, 2003, in Superior Court, New London, that it had a prior written agreement, dated March 14, with F.L. Merritt to buy the property.

As putative evidence of this agreement, it attached to its suit a copy of a proposed contract that had been signed by Ravenswood but not by F.L. Merritt. An attempt by The Day newspaper to reach Ravenswood’s attorney was unsuccessful. Dean Fiske, president of Ravenswood, was quoted by the newspaper as saying: “We believe we have a contract with…[Nelson A. Merritt, President of F.L. Merritt]…and we have been working with him for many months and we want to continue with our development.”

The Cheshire-based Mr. Fiske asserted:

“We’re certainly not going to sit back and let him sell his property to GOSA.”

GOSA President Priscilla Pratt and Nelson A. Merritt signed a purchase-and-sale agreement April 14 in the Greenwich, CT offices of Robert Lane, a lawyer representing F.L. Merritt. GOSA plans to use a $650,000 state grant, announced April 8, to help pay the $1 million purchase price.

GOSA intends to preserve the site as the “Merritt Family Forest.” Under terms of the state grant, the tract will remain in its natural state and open to the public in perpetuity.

Mrs. Pratt said the Ravenswood suit is an “improper, vexatious and nuisance attempt to interfere” with GOSA’s signed contract and an “outrageous interference with the laudable goal of both the Merritts and GOSA to have the property preserved in its natural state.”

Attorney William C. Kroll, representing F.L. Merritt in the Ravenswood suit, questioned in The Day article why the proposed contract contained in Ravenswood’s suit lacked a signature by Mr. Merritt or Atty. Lane.

Atty. Kroll also provided the newspaper with a copy of a March 14 letter by which Atty. Lane retured to Ravenswood the unsigned contract as well as a deposit.

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GOSA Wins $650,000 State Grant Toward Purchase Of Merritt Property

GROTON –The Groton Open Space Association has been awarded a $650,000 matching grant toward purchase of the 75-acre Merritt Property in Groton.

Announcement of the award was made April 8, 2003, in a ceremony at Lyme presided over by Lt. Gov. Jodi Rell and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Arthur J. Rocque, Jr. The award was the second largest, after the $675,000 awarded to Lyme, of the 22 grants announced at the ceremony. State open space grants announced April 7 and April 8 totaled $7.8 million, covering 2,100 acres.

GOSA, under President Priscilla W. Pratt, has conducted a two-year campaign to save the Merritt Property from becoming a housing development.

Commenting on the grant, Mrs. Pratt said: “GOSA is extremely grateful for the support given us by the state in our efforts to preserve this vital open space area. We now turn to our fellow citizens for their support as we launch a major public fund drive to raise the balance of the $1 million purchase price. Our goal is $350,000.

“Not only will this open space be a keystone in Groton’s greenbelt system, it will also be taxpayer friendly. It is an established fact that housing developments do not pay for themselves, but increase the tax burden by requiring increased educational and general services for the town. Preserving the Merritt Property will be a tax-saving measure, as well as providing all public benefits of open space. Further information can be obtained by writing GOSA at PO Box 9187, Groton, CT 06340-9187, or phoning Edith Fairgrieve, Finance Chairman, at 536-8218.”

The state’s announcement said: “This [Merritt] parcel adds acreage to 1,500 acres of greenway that includes two State Parks. A section of the property has not been logged in over 130 years (Mature Forest). The property also includes vernal pools, two Class A streams (Eccleston Brook) and various types of wildlife habitat (wetland, stream valley, and interior forest) including habitat of two species of special concern. The property has several sites of historical and archaeological significance.”

GOSA’s involvement in saving the property goes back more than two years, when the town Inland Wetlands Agency began hearings on a developer’s plan, filed in June 2000, to build 79 houses and 1.2 miles of roads on the tract. Largely due to GOSA’s opposition, the Agency scaled back the project to 52 houses before handing off the proposal to the town Planning Commission.

On Feb. 19, 2002, the Planning Commission approved the plan, after further cutting the number of houses to 48. The commission’s decision was split, with the chairman voting against the project and one member abstaining. GOSA appealed the decision. Last November, GOSA applied for the state grant to cover 65% of the anticipated cost of acquiring the land and conducted talks with F.L. Merritt Inc., the family company that owns the property. The tract has been in the Merritt family since 1868.

Throughout the struggle over the Merritt Property, GOSA has spent thousands of dollars on legal and scientific consultation fees to help bolster its case that development would not be right to this tract. GOSA drew on countless hours of work by volunteers, including those with specialized knowledge of civil engineering, marine biology and law.

The Merritt Property is forested with Maple, Beech, Ash, Birch, Hickory and Oak, among other species. It is home to the Deer, Fox, Raccoon and Wild Turkey, as well as to an estimated 73 kinds of bird. The Wood Turtle and Red-Shouldered Hawk, which live on the tract, are listed as Connecticut Species of Concern. Other life on the property includes the Brown Trout, Marbled and Spotted Salamanders, Fairy Shrimp, Wood Frog, Tesselated Darter, American Eel and Blacknose Dace.

The western end of the tract was, it’s believed, the site in 1637 of the fort of the Pequot sachem Sassacus. At the eastern end, the Eccleston Brook glides toward the fertile clamming area of Palmer Cove. Flowing through the center of the parcel is an unnamed stream that joins Eccleston Brook to the south.

Terms of the state grant provide that the land shall be preserved forever as open space and shall be open to the public for appropriate uses.

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