The Merritt Family Forest A Reality After 5-Year Delay

GROTON — The Groton Open Space Association on May 16, 2008, bought a 75-acre wooded tract from F.L. Merritt, Inc. for $1 million following a nearly five-year court battle with a developer who had sought the land for a 48-house residential subdivision.

The property, which runs along Route 1 between the top of Fort Hill and Fishtown Road, henceforth will be known as The Merritt Family Forest. Since 1868, it had belonged to the Merritt family.

Paperwork transferring ownership was signed by Nelson A. Merritt, president of F.L. Merritt, and by Priscilla W. Pratt, president of GOSA, at the Pratt-Wright Gallery in Noank.

Ms. Pratt said:

“GOSA is extremely grateful this day to be able to add this beautiful land to the preserved open space of Groton. Deepest appreciation goes to the Merritt family who patiently endured five years of a developer’s fruitless litigation; to the Department of Environmental Protection who believed so steadfastly in the rightness of the acquisition; to the lawyers who worked so tirelessly in our behalf; and to the public who have encouraged us both morally and financially throughout the years. The triumph of this achievement belongs to them as well as to GOSA, and it belongs especially to the children and adults of today and tomorrow, who will be able to enjoy forever the unspoiled natural treasures of The Merritt Family Forest.”

Mr. Merritt said, “It is wonderful that GOSA, with the assistance of the State of Connecticut, has found the way to preserve this forest primeval for all future generations and for all time.”

State Rep. Elissa Wright (D-Groton), who attended the signing, expressed deep appreciation to the Merritts for ensuring the preservation and protection of the land. She added: “As the Merritt family has done for generations, our generation needs to start to think in 20 to 100 year time spans — that exceed our own life spans and beyond our current terms of office — to conserve ecosystems, protect the land, and preserve habitat and biodiversity for our grandchildren, great grandchildren, and beyond.”

GOSA, the new owner, has given a conservation easement to the State of Connecticut providing that the land shall be kept in its natural, scenic and open condition in perpetuity. Public access is granted for hiking, jogging and for other non-motorized passive recreational uses that will be listed in GOSA’s management plan, currently being created.

Of the total purchase price, $650,000 was supplied by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program. The remainder was raised by GOSA through contributions from individuals and from institutions. GOSA still must raise funds to pay off an unsecured bridge loan, recoup acquisition expenses, and build up an endowment for insurance and other future outlays. Final goal of a GOSA fund-raising campaign chaired by GOSA Director Sidney Van Zandt is $1,080,000.

The Merritt Property, rich in wildlife and plant variety, functions as a green bridge between protected lands on its eastern and western sides, and it is itself an impressive piece of rugged woodland. It is crossed by Eccleston Brook and a tributary, Cowslip Brook, which converge and flow into Palmer Cove and Fisher’s Island Sound. To the west are the Bluff Point and Haley Farm state parks (more than 1,000 acres together) and the Mortimer Wright Preserve (88 acres owned by the town). To the east of the Merritt property lie the town-owned Pequot Woods (140 acres) and Beebe Pond Park (95 acres), as well as some 75 acres protected by private conservation easements.

GOSA had signed a purchase agreement with F.L. Merritt April 14, 2003. The next day, Ravenswood Construction LLC, a Cheshire developer, filed notice of an impending suit to force Merritt to sell to Ravenswood, based on a claim of a valid prior contract. In June, the developer filed an additional suit, this time against GOSA and nine individuals, claiming interference with its contract and abuse of the legal process. Ravenswood withdrew the suit in July, as the state attorney general prepared to back GOSA.

On May 18, 2005, a New London Superior Court jury found in favor Merritt and co-defendant GOSA, determining that the developer did not have a valid contract to buy the land from Merritt. Ravenswood appealed to the Appellate Court. The jury verdict was upheld by the Appellate Court on Dec. 12, 2007.

The issue finally was settled in January 2008, when Ravenswood decided not to seek a state Supreme Court review of the Appellate Court’s ruling.

Atty. William Kroll, of Salem, represented F.L. Merritt in the New London Superior Court jury trial, with William Hescock, of North Stonington representing GOSA. Paulann H. Sheets of Groton was attorney for GOSA during Ravenswood’s short-lived suit against GOSA and the nine individuals.

Lead attorney for the defendants in the appellate proceedings was Elizabeth Leamon, then of the New Haven firm of Tyler, Cooper & Alcorn, with Ben Solnit, a Tyler-Cooper partner, contributing to the brief. (Atty. Leamon now is associated with Murtha Cullina LLP in Guilford.) Gerald A. Cory of New London appeared for F.L. Merritt.

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Statement By Nelson Merritt On The Merritt Family Forest

GROTON — Nelson A. Merritt, president of F.L. Merritt Inc., made this statement at the signing May 16, 2008, of paperwork that created The Merritt Family Forest:

Our grandfather, Francis E. Merritt, who was born in Ledyard in 1835, bought the Fort Hill Farm in 1868. The son, Francis L. Merritt, was born shortly after the family moved in that year. Our grandmother, Abbie Crouch Merritt, and our mother, Althea Montgomery Merritt, loved the farm, especially the forest with its numerous deer and other animals.

While the land was generally used for grazing young cattle in its open spaces, other uses came up now and then. There were originally two or three houses there during colonial times, probably for tenant farmers. One of them was located above the inner brook and along the original road that ran from what is now Flanders Road through the woods to the farmhouse on the top of Fort Hill. Also along that road are the remains of an old grist mill. During the Civil War, ribs for wooden warships built at the Noank Shipyard came from the great limbs of oak trees and paneling for the cabins from red cedars that grew in abundance. During World War II a pasture lot of ten acres or so along Fishtown Road was plowed and turned into victory gardens for a score or more of Noank residents.

The farm and the Merritt generations were a part of Noank. Francis L. Merritt and his four sisters went to the old one-room school on the top of Brook Street hill before he met our mother Althea Montgomery. Their seven children went to the two-story school on Main Street.

It is wonderful that GOSA, with the assistance of the State of Connecticut, has found the way to preserve this forest primeval for all future generations and for all time.

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The Day Urges Public To Pitch In On Merritt Fund

NEW LONDON — The Day urged in an editorial Jan. 17, 2008, that supporters of open space contribute to a GOSA fund to help acquire the 75-acre Merritt Property atop Fort Hill.

Following is the editorial:

The 75-acre Merritt property in Groton is a densely wooded tract with rolling hills, a pond and moss-covered stone walls that serve as vestiges of its agrarian roots.The land, like so much other open space in the region, is adjacent to an extensive residential development — and until last week it appeared it would undergo the same, all-too-familiar transformation from forest to housing.

But after five years of litigation, the Groton Open Space Association (GOSA) finally was able to declare victory when a developer that wanted to build 48 single-family homes bowed to a state Appellate Court ruling and decided to give up its claim to buy the property atop Fort Hill just west of Fishtown Road.

“We won!” Sidney F. Van Zandt, director of the open-space organization, trumpeted earlier this week.

But the fight to save the land — which serves as a key link in a greenbelt that runs through Bluff Point Coastal Reserve, Haley Farm State Park, the Mortimer D. Wright Preserve, Avalonia Land Trust property and Beebe Pond Park — is far from over.

Now GOSA, a private, nonprofit, grassroots organization that for more than 30 years has helped preserve such significant open spaces as the Haley Farm and Bluff Point, must raise money to help buy the property, which would become known as The Merritt Family Forest.

Landowner F.L. Merritt Inc. has agreed to sell it for $1 million. GOSA, which already has made a down payment and also secured a $650,000 state grant to apply toward the purchase, has launched a campaign to raise the final $175,000.

We urge all who value open space and recognize the significance of this parcel to pitch in. More information on how to donate is available on the group’s Web site, gosaonline.org.

“We turn to the citizens of southeastern Connecticut to help us save another piece of green space,” Mrs. Van Zandt said. “Once it is gone, it is gone. We will never have a chance again.”

 

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GOSA, Merritt Win Final Legal Battle In Contract Dispute

HARTFORD — The Groton Open Space Association and F.L. Merritt Inc. have won the final legal battle in their nearly five-year struggle to allow GOSA to purchase the 75-acre Merritt property on Fort Hill and preserve it as public open space, it was verified Jan. 9, 2008.

Lawyers for the Cheshire developer Ravenswood Construction LLC said the company hasn’t filed and didn’t intend to file an appeal of a crucial Appellate Court decision last month. That decision upheld a New London Superior Court jury dismissal in May 2005 of Ravenswood’s claim to have a contract to buy the land–a contract that Ravenswood contended pre-dated GOSA’s contract.

Ravenswood had 20 days to appeal following formal publication of the Appellate Court ruling Dec. 18. The developer could have applied to the Supreme Court for a review of the Appellate Court decision. The high court normally takes one to three months to decide on such applications. A review, if one had been granted, could have required more than a year to be completed.

GOSA signed a contract April 14, 2003, to buy the property from Merritt. The next day, Ravenswood asserted its claim of a prior contract, filed suit and placed a legal hold on the land. That began the lengthy legal battle through the Superior Court and then the Appellate Court that now has ended.

The struggle included a SLAPP suit filed by Ravenswood and Mystic Estates Partners of New London against GOSA and nine individuals accusing them of contractual interference and abuse of the legal process. The suit against GOSA — SLAPP stands for “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation” — was dropped hastily in July, 2003. At the time, Groton Atty. Paulann H. Sheets, acting for GOSA, noted that state Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment had been about to announce their intention to support GOSA in court when the suit was withdrawn.

Shortly before signing the contract, GOSA had won a $650,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection toward the $1 million purchase price. The closing is to take place upon payment of the grant, which had been held up only by the legal block placed on the land by Ravenswood. The Merritt property stretches along the south side of Route 1 between the summit of Fort Hill and Fishtown Road.

GOSA President Priscilla Pratt said GOSA would move quickly to close. The property, to be preserved for passive recreation, will be known as The Merritt Family Forest.

Lead lawyer for the defendants was Elizabeth Leamon, of the New Haven firm of Tyler, Cooper & Alcorn. Other defense attorneys were Gerald A. Cory of New London and, on the brief, Ben A. Solnit, a partner at Tyler-Cooper.

Attorney William Kroll of Salem represented F.L. Merritt during the jury trial. Lawyer for GOSA was William Hescock of North Stonington.

Representing the plaintiff Ravenswood were Paul M. Geraghty and Michael S. Bonnano of New London and James M. Miele of Cheshire.

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