GROTON — GOSA has received some communications from abutters to The Merritt Family Forest and from other Groton residents about GOSA’s decision not to allow horses, bicycles and dogs in order to protect the land.

In a recent letter to two abutters who asked for reconsideration of the policy on dogs, GOSA President Priscilla Pratt explained GOSA’s position on dogs, horses and bikes. The following is a slightly edited copy of the letter, with the recipients’ names omitted:

I hope I can help to clarify our stewardship of The Merritt Family Forest and the issues you addressed. Please grant me the privilege of a lengthy letter, because I feel deeply about this and of course hope our neighbors will be grateful to have this beautiful land so near their homes and be understanding of our position.

First, let me say that none of us are against dogs. In fact, GOSA was responsible for the establishment of Haley Farm State Park in 1970, a popular dog walking area; was active in the purchase of additional land at Bluff Point and the formation in 1974 of the Bluff Point Coastal Reserve, which is open to dog walkers; GOSA helped promote the successful Groton Open Space referendum in 1988 which resulted in such acquisitions as the Copp property, which now has a well used dog park, and other town open space lands, including the Mortimer D. Wright Preserve, all of which are open to folks walking their dogs.

I myself was a director of the former Connecticut Branch of The Humane Society of the United States and was a volunteer representative locally for the Friends of Animals spaying program, which provided low cost or no cost neutering for pets of qualifying pet owners, a program that prevented much suffering associated with the surplus animal problem. In addition, my husband and I worked many years ago for reforms at the local dog pound. A memorial fund was established in his memory for the pound, and we have adopted wonderful dogs over the years from the Groton Animal Shelter and the Connecticut Humane Society.

GOSA has a long history of attempts to protect the Merritt property, going back at least seven years when the property was scheduled to become a tightly packed 79-house subdivision. Had this happened, the Merritt property would be a far cry from the open space land that it is today. But GOSA intervened, fighting first for a more environmentally friendly design to the subdivision, and eventually helped whittle down the projected size of the development to 48 houses. GOSA had hired an expert environmental consultant and a fine local attorney, and obtained the pro bono services of an engineer to assist in this endeavor, as well as spending much volunteer time and energy.

When the developer allowed its option to lapse—without abandoning its plan to build there—we took a deep breath and decided to try to buy the property ourselves. Against the odds, we won a state grant and obtained a contract with the Merritts by the skin of our teeth. One day after we signed the contract, the developer sued Merritt, asserting possession of a pre-existing contract.

A short time later, the developer sued GOSA and nine individuals for damages for allegedly interfering with its supposed contract. The suit for contract interference was dropped in the face of threatened intervention by the Connecticut attorney general, but the legal battle for the right to buy the land persisted for about five years before GOSA finally purchased the property last spring.

At one point during the litigation, both sides were directed by the court to seek a negotiated settlement. We made a bona fide effort. The developer offered to drop its suit if GOSA would agree to the building of a 15- or 16-house subdivision in the middle of the tract. Several directors visited the property one sunny morning. They walked the rolling contours of the forest floor under tall trees, and decided this fairly slender piece of land could not stand that kind of intrusion without a complete loss of character.

They then took to the board the recommendation that GOSA reject the offer and roll on to a court decision, come what might. We placed a calculated all-or-nothing bet and won when the Appellate Court unanimously upheld a New London Superior Court jury decision in our favor and the developer dropped the suit.

GOSA is in the position of being a new steward of this 75-acre parcel of land, which would now be a thickly settled subdivision if we had not acted. Although some members of the public did use the property during the Merritt ownership, this use was in defiance of no-trespassing signs. GOSA has, in fact, opened up land that was previously private and restricted.

We want to afford this gem a high level of protection to its terrain and wildlife and plants. We want to leave only light footprints. Bikes, horses and dogs would leave big footprints on the fragile Merritt Family Forest, each category in its own way and all in a combined manner. We don’t want to begin our stewardship by compromising the conservation of the land that we fought so long and hard to preserve.

One of our members, a plant scientist, and another, a landscaper, are inventorying the plant and animal life in the forest. They have compiled a pages-long list of species, and it is lengthening all the time. At a recent board meeting, a bucket of fairy shrimp from a pool on the land was brought in for inspection. (They were returned after the meeting.) They are among the hundreds of aquatic, terrestrial and avian species on the property that we want to protect.

Our board has decided that a combination of horses, bikes and dogs would seriously compromise The Merritt Family Forest. All people are welcome in the forest—to walk, jog, take pictures, stroll with friends and family, study nature, refresh themselves in the beauty of the place. We are designing and building paths that will take visitors close enough to natural places of interest to observe but far enough away so that all of us together won’t destroy that which is observed.

We considered seriously the possibility of special status for abutters, but ultimately decided against it. An exemption for abutters would strike non-abutters as discriminatory, and rightly so. A rule cannot apply just to most; it has to apply to all. If some people were walking dogs on the property, or biking, or riding horses, it would be impossible to explain to others why they had to adhere to the rules, and our attempt at maintaining a light footprint on the property would become meaningless.

We genuinely ask for your understanding of our attempts to conserve this environmental treasure, and thank you for the opportunity to explain our work to you.