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GROTON–Developers have unconditionally withdrawn their SLAPP suit against Groton Open Space Association.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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Haley Farm and Bluff Point: A Personal Reminiscence

By Sidney F. Van Zandt

[The following speech was written by Sidney Van Zandt, one of the founders and the first president of GOSA, for the annual meeting Oct. 8, 2002, at which Priscilla Pratt, the current GOSA president, and her late husband, Charles N. Pratt, were honored for 40 years of untiring dedication to saving of open space.]

This evening is a special one for everyone in this town and for members of the Groton Open Space Association as we present an award to Charles N. and Priscilla W. Pratt. Before we present this award, I feel it is important to give some background to the Haley Farm addition of this year. Some of this information was taken from the eulogy that I gave on April 18, 2002, at the memorial service for Charlie.

My friendship with Charlie and Priscilla Pratt goes back to 1961 when we were involved together in a successful battle led by Priscilla¹s brother, Mort Wright, to deny a change of zone by the then owner of the Haley Farm for development of multi-family dwellings there. The developer wanted to allow for 425 duplex units ostensibly for the Coast Guard that was then stationed at Avery Point. As it turned out, the Coast Guard left the area for Ellis Island in New York Harbor a few years later.

Not too long after the zoning battle, when I was working in my vegetable garden, Charlie’s truck came slowly around the corner and pulled over to the edge of lawn. He got out and came over. After a few words to get conversation going, he got straight to the point.

“Sidney, what are we going to do to save the Haley Farm?”

Well, that was a BIG question! And that was the beginning of our many years of effort with the “Save the Haley Farm Committee,” which later became the “Groton Open Space Association.” Charlie and Priscilla were both founders and directors on the board. Priscilla was corresponding secretary. (I was founder and president.) They have long been quiet lions working away with a steady focus to Save the Haley Farm.

As it turns out, Priscilla, while in Hartford (on Pratt Street, would you believe?), saw an organization of interest called the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. She told her tale of our plight to John E. Hibbard, secretary-forester of the organization. John was most helpful and came down to one of our early meetings. That organization rose to the occasion and offered to be our tax-exempt organization, did all the sending of literature and receiving of the funds, as well as giving us advice and moral support throughout the while project.

Brochure Promotes Haley Farm

There was to be a statewide mailing, but–for Charlie–a letter alone would not do. Charlie and Priscilla put together a brochure that included photographs and text, which incorporated the present, past and geography. It was a brilliant work of art. This project had to be a promotion because the officials in the Town of Groton, as well as the regional planning agency, felt that there was PLENTY of open space around. The town wanted to develop the area, so ours was a lonely battle. It was a battle to sidestep our town government, meaning our organization was to raise funds for the town¹s portion of shared town-state-federal open space grants.

After two years of vigorous activity, $25,000 had been raised toward the $100,000 goal. But on December of 1969, the state gave us a proposition that it would buy the farm if we could bring that total to $50,000 by March 1, 1970. (That was only two months away.) The challenge was accepted.

What followed was a marvel of community cooperation that included local organizations and church groups that held smorgasbords, spaghetti suppers, and bake sales. Youth groups and individuals organized pony rides, car washes, and anything and everything else to raise the money. An anonymous matching fund known as “Match 3000” to a rock concert held at the City of Groton Auditorium took the fund-raising challenge by storm.

We went over the top. The deeds were filed in July of 1970, but it was a bittersweet victory because the developer had held back the upper 50 acres, the ones that abut the high school all along the baseball field. Charlie and Priscilla would not rest with that unfinished business, and they worked steadily thereafter on various ways of raising the funds to add that acreage to the rest of the park.

Shortly after the Haley Farm Battle was won, with hardly any time to catch our breath, the Bluff Point Advisory Council was formed by a bill passed by the legislature. The council was to come up with a plan for the “highest and best use” of the area. The board was made up of 20 representatives of organizations, towns and city boards, and individuals. Charlie was the press secretary. Among present GOSA directors on the board were Tom Hatfield, Edith Fairgrieve and Omar Allvord. Omar and I were co-chairmen.

At the time, the state only owned a 250-acre strip along the Poquonnock River, including the beach and the bluff, but not the ridge or the land facing Mumford Cove, or the former railroad land south of the tracks.

Battles Follow Over Bluff Point

Memorable battles ensued over numerous objectionable proposals. Some of the plans we fought:

–a four-lane highway from a cross-town road and another from I-95.

–a Plan of Development for the 250 acres that called for a 5,000 car parking lot.

–a sewer outfall through the east side of the peninsula that would cut through the beach to empty into the Sound.

–a 400-boat marina.

–an industrial park.

–two tries to promote a bridge from Long Island landing here and on Fishers Island.

–a subterranean oil storage facility.

There also was a five-year battle to expand the airport, as well as to develop a barge terminal and a helicopter landing port. We were successful in all those battles, and after the smoke cleared many years later, the state had purchased the remaining land, which then brought the total to 778 acres. A bill promoted by the Bluff Point Advisory Council, protecting the park from intensive development, was passed in the legislature in 1975 mandating Bluff Point be a Coastal Reserve, the first on the East Coast.

After the Haley Farm became a state park, the farmer who was grazing his cows and horses there had to remove them, and the barns and outbuildings were taken down by the state. Short of funds, the state more or less abandoned this lovely, newly acquired area. The fields were reverting to woodland at a rapid rate. However, with the interest earned each year from our “over the top” fund drive, Charlie and Priscilla arranged with a farmer to have the fields cut once a year.

In the late 1990s, Charlie and Priscilla incorporated the Groton Open Space Association as a non-profit so they could continue to raise more funds to maintain the area, promote annual Clean-up Days at the park, give support to the Town of Groton open space referendums and deal with numerous other environmental issues.

GOSA has been an active advocate at both town and state levels for over 32 in the effort to secure the O&G property, lovingly referred to as the “Upper 50 Acres.” Three attempts to develop the property were successfully opposed by GOSA and other concerned citizens and groups. One was for 48 houses on the O&G property; another was for a 95 unit cluster development on both the O&G property and the adjacent Briggs property; and a third was an attempt to obtain a 50 foot right-of-way across town property to open up both the Briggs and O&G lands for intensive development. Serious negotiations between the state and the owners of the land belonging to O&G (22 heirs were part of the trust for O&G) as well as Bowen Briggs began in May, 2000. GOSA was the catalyst. Issues of price and availability of funds that had kept the parties apart for so many years were resolved. The state¹s Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program made the purchases possible.

On May 28, 2002, two months short of 32 years, the Upper 50 Acres and the adjacent 7 acres of the Briggs property were recorded at Groton Town Hall and the 57.09 acres were added to the Haley Farm State Park, which now totals 267.37 acres preserved for open space.

A recently completed pedestrian bridge crosses the Amtrak line at the southern end of the park, and joins Haley Farm State Park with the Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve for a total 1,000+ acres.

What a gift your efforts have been! It is our pleasure to present this award to you for the 40 years of untiring effort and dedication to acquire, protect and preserve open space in our town, including the more than 1,000 acres of Bluff Point and the Haley Farm with its latest addition of 57.09 acres on the 28th of May 2002.

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Groton Commends Pratts For Open Space Contributions

GROTON –The Groton Town Council has issued a proclamation praising Charles and Priscilla Pratt for their role in the 32-year-long struggle, recently concluded successfully, to add 57 acres to the Haley Farm State Park. A press release on the addition follows this item.

Mayor Frank O’Beirne Jr. read the proclamation at the June 18 Town Council meeting. The statement also commended the Pratts and GOSA for “their never-ending desire, dedication, and hard work to preserve open space in the Town of Groton.”

As Mrs. Pratt accepted the award on behalf of her late husband, herself and GOSA, Mayor O’Beirne quipped that he hoped the next open-space acquisition wouldn’t take 32 years. Mrs. Pratt, who is president of GOSA, responded that 32 years, long though it was, is insignificant in comparison to the future time that visitors will enjoy the protected land. She also recalled a favorite quote of her late husband from the French writer Victor Hugo:

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

The text of the Town Council proclamation follows:

WHEREAS, the State of Connecticut has acquired an additional 57 acres of open space adjacent to the picturesque Haley Farm State Park, north to the boundary of the Robert E. Fitch Senior High School; and

WHEREAS, the expanded park will offer passive recreation, such as bird-watching, bicycling, jogging, and walking on trails that connect to the nearby Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve; and

WHEREAS, Charles and Priscilla Pratt spearheaded the effort for the State to acquire this property between Haley Farm and Fitch High School; and

WHEREAS, Charles and Priscilla Pratt moved to Noank in 1957, and Charles became a member of the first Noank Park Commission and later Chairman; and

WHEREAS, the late Mr. Pratt was a pioneering conservationist and founder of the Groton Open Space Association (GOSA), which led the way to the establishment of Haley Farm State Park in 1970, and his striking photographs of the farm’s natural beauty were instrumental in a statewide campaign to raise the private funds that, in conjunction with state and federal monies, were used to purchase the property; and

WHEREAS, as Press Secretary of the Bluff Point Advisory Council, Mr. Pratt was a leader in the citizens’ effort to make Bluff Point a coastal reserve, a designation affording a high level of protection to undeveloped land, and acting on recommendations of the Advisory Council, the Connecticut legislature created the Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in 1975 which remains the only coastal reserve on the East Coast; and

WHEREAS, the late Mr. Pratt was on the Baord of Directors of the GOSA, a member of the Noank Volunteer Fire Company, the Noank Historical Society, the Mystic Seaport, and the Connecticut River Museum, just to name a few; and

WHEREAS, the Groton Open Space Association now plans to focus its attention on other parcels in town that could be preserved as open space; NOW THEREFORE BE IT

RESOLVED, that the Town Council of the Town of Groton does hereby commend Charles and Priscilla Pratt and the Groton Open Space Association for their never-ending desire, dedication, and hard work to preserve open space in the Town of Groton.

Dated at Groton Connecticut this 18th day of June 2002.

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State Acquisition Of 57 Acres To Add To Haley State Farm Park

(Following announcement was issued by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and GOSA.)

HARTFORD, June 3, 2002–The State of Connecticut (DEP) has completed purchase of 49.95 acres from the Guerra-DeAngelis Trustees, and 7.14 acres from Bowen Briggs, to add to Haley Farm State Park. The deeds were recorded at Groton Town Hall on May 28, 2002.

These lands are located between Fitch Senior High School and the existing Haley Farm State Park.

These acquisitions come 32 years after the purchase by the State of 200 acres from A.C. White for Haley Farm State Park in 1970. The 50 acres that belonged to the O&G Construction Co. of New Haven were intended to be purchased as part of the park at that time, but negotiations were not completed.

Groton Open Space Association has a long history of involvement in Haley Farm, including spearheading a successful fund drive in the 1960s that led to the establishment of the State Park. Since 1985, GOSA with DEP approval, has contracted and paid a farmer annually to mow the fields. Since 1970, the group has been an active advocate at both town and state levels for completion of the open space purchases at the park. …

GOSA is very grateful for the Guerra-DeAngelis, Briggs acquisitions, and for the State’s Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program, which made these purchases possible.

For further information, please call: Connie Kisluk, DEP–(860) 424-3070 or Priscilla Pratt, President, GOSA–(860) 536-6376/ 536-9243.

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Charles Pratt, Pioneering Conservationist And A GOSA Founder, Dies

From The Day, April 4, 2002

Charles Pratt

Groton–Charles Norris Pratt, 78, of Noank, passed on Wednesday, March 27.

He was the devoted husband of Priscilla Wright Pratt and the beloved father of Catherine Taylor Pratt and Charles Timothy J. Pratt.

Born in Essex, on Sept. 22, 1923, to Charles Manwaring Pratt and Violet Elizabeth Taylor Pratt, he was a direct descendant of William Pratt, the first settler of Essex. He was also the great-great-great-grandson of the merchant John Taylor of Glasgow and New York, one of early New York’s prominent citizens.

Mr. Pratt graduated from Pratt High School in Essex in 1941. He received an associate’s degree from New London Junior College in 1943 and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1950.

He served in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, and attended the officer training program at Yale University. Later, he was stationed in the Pacific with the Third Fleet.

After graduating from Rensselaer, Mr. Pratt moved to New York, where he worked as an architect for Walker and Poor, J. Gordon Carr, and Edward Durell Stone. During this time, he helped design the New York ASPCA headquarters and animal shelter, and the Parke-Bernet building, and he supervised the interior remodeling of the first National City Bank headquarters on Wall Street.

He marred Priscilla Redfield Wright, of Centerbrook, in 1951, and the couple resided in New York until 1957, when they movd to Noank and Mr. Pratt established his own business in architectural photography. He served as secretary of the Architectural Photographers Association and, in 1973, he was a finalist in the PPG Industries Architectural Photographers Invitational, a national photography competition. His advice was frequently sought on issues pertaining to architectural history and preservation.

A pioneering conservationist, Mr. Pratt was a founder of the Groton Open Space Association, which led the way in the establishment of Haley Farm State Park in 1970. His striking photographs of the farm’s natural beauty were instrumental in a statewide campaign to raise the private funds, that in conjunction with state and federal monies, were used to purchase the property.

As press secretary of the Bluff Point Advisory Council, he was a leader in the citizens’ effort to make Bluff Point a coastal reserve, a designation affording a high level of protection to undeveloped land. Acting on recommendations of the Advisory Council, the Connecticut legislature created the Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in 1975, and today Bluff Point remains the only coastal reserve on the East Coast.

Interested in civic planning, Mr. Pratt was a member of the first Noank Park Commission and later served as its chairman. He designed the original Noank park in 1958, and later the Noank town dock and beach.

After his retirement from architectural photography, Mr. Pratt and his wife opened the Pratt-Wright Gallery in Noank, which specializes in art of the Mystic-Noank region.

Growing up on the Connecticut River, Mr. Pratt acquired an extensive knowledge of wooden boats and maritime history. He was an accomplished sailor, owning and maintaining a series of unique wooden boats that he sailed with his family and friends. He was also a lifelong fly fisherman and an expert at fly tying.

He was on the board of directors of the Groton Open Space Association and was a member of the Noank Volunteer Fire Company, the Noank Historical Society, the Mystic Seaport, the Connnecticut River Museum, the Nauyaug Cruising Club, and the Essex Congregational Church.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m., Monday, April 8, at Noank Baptist Church. Interment will be at 1 p.m., Tuesday, April 9, in Riverview Cemetery in Essex.

The Dinoto Funeral Home, 17 Pearl Street, Mystic, is assisting the family.

Gifts in memory of Mr. Pratt may be made to the Town of Groton, Charles N. Pratt Memorial Fund for the Groton Animal Pound, Attn. Town Treasurer, 45 Fort Hill Road, Groton, CT 06340, or to the Groton Open Space Association, Inc., Haley Farm Maintenance Fund, PO Box 9187, Groton, CT 06340.

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Tributes to Priscilla Pratt

This page is devoted to memories of Priscilla Pratt and tributes to her inspired leadership of GOSA, which ended with her death June 15, 2009. The first three pieces are by GOSA directors. The fourth is by John Wirzbicki, a former Groton Town Council member who writes the CTBlueBlog.

– – – –

Joan Smith

It was a sad day, but a beautiful day, the day Priscilla left us. We will miss her terribly. Yet we know she had a good life right up to the very end. She led a well-examined life, blessed by good friends and family, and she was committed to the welfare of animals and the environment. Love of Priscilla now keeps us going.

Priscilla led the GOSA cabal (as my husband calls it) in a quiet, thoughtful and dignified manner. Neighbors may have wondered what was going on in the Pratt-Wright Gallery, where we met, but we knew about GOSA’s efforts to protect the environment, sensitive lands, habitats and waters. Priscilla and GOSA helped to protect Haley Farm, Bluff Point, 57 new Haley Farm acres, and The Merritt Family Forest, more than 1,100 acres in all. Priscilla’s tenure as president covered GOSA’s incorporation as a nonprofit and GOSA’s twenty-two year program of mowing Haley Farm’s fields.

Because of Priscilla, we know we are not alone. Her legacy is the backbone and quiet confidence we need to follow our convictions, to deal with challenges and to speak clearly and effectively. She is within us and still corrects our spelling. She makes sure that we are careful in what we say and that we show restraint and respect for others. She sees that we do not back down in the face of intimidation, but that we can also accept correction and learn to do better. Anyone who mistook her small size and quiet manner for timidity, at their peril, learned otherwise. We can only emulate her sharp mind.

Love of nature brought us together. Once upon a time, Frank Williams invited me to a board meeting, where I met Priscilla, Charlie and the rest of the cabal. The topic of discussion was logging at the Mortimer Wright Preserve, and I immediately knew this was the right group for me. Haley Farm attracted me to the area, and here was the group that had saved it! I was hooked.

Priscilla, Edith Fairgrieve and I began spending full days, in the time before we had computers, typing statements, correcting spelling, and researching science — speaking in what seemed to be a lonely voice for the environment. And then the community responded in spades. Engineers taught us how to read a site plan, land trustees gave us language, and biologists, educators and experts in birds, botany, amphibians, water, shellfish, saltwater marshes, nitrogen and turtles joined the fray. Even lawyers, many pro bono, lined up one behind the other, like a train sitting in the gallery, to teach us how to intervene, appeal and negotiate hard. Neighbors, friends and local businesses gave generously to our fundraising campaigns.

Everyone respected Priscilla, especially our adversaries. Those of us who knew her loved her best. Let us hope there is a little bit of Priscilla in each of us: she took time to know individuals; she mentored and encouraged us, and let each person develop and contribute his particular talent. She spoke kindly and clearly, and had an uncanny eye for detail and a firm grasp of complex issues. By example, she helped us all become better people, and she gave us hope for the future of our planet. What a great and inspirational woman she was!– Eulogy June 27, 2009 .

– – – –

Jim Furlong

Priscilla Pratt, president of the Groton Open Space Association, worked to the end for GOSA and future generations.

Days before she died June 15, Priscilla dictated incisive emails, watched a pertinent town council meeting on television, and used her legendarily sharp eye to catch typos in a GOSA poster.

Priscilla had led GOSA with significant success since the mid-1980s after making big contributions in the 60s and 70s to saving Haley Farm and Bluff Point. Under her presidency, GOSA added to public open space, worked to mitigate development impacts, and championed better rules for land-use commissions. GOSA promoted the town open space bond issue in 1988. These activities have been explained elsewhere. So here are a few things about the woman and the way she led and inspired people.

She was an accomplished sculptor and a former church organist. She wrote moving poetry. She felt deep sympathy with abused and abandoned pets and worked to improve the Groton animal pound. People learned about these things slowly — from others.

Priscilla had spiritual connection with the land and wildlife. When she spoke of beautiful landscapes under threat of destruction or animals displaced from their habitats, both love and distress could be heard in her voice. When it was pointed out to her in 2003 that a legal fight for the 75-acre Merritt property on Fort Hill would last a long time, she never thought of quitting the struggle. “My generation won’t be here much longer, but that land will be here forever,” she said.

Priscilla could communicate her faith in her causes, and she found experts in law, engineering and biology to work for GOSA, often for reduced or no monetary compensation. “Priscilla thinks I should sacrifice my first-born for GOSA,” one lawyer complained humorously.

Meetings of GOSA directors took place at the Pratt-Wright Gallery in Noank amid paintings and under the gaze of Priscilla’s head sculptures. Priscilla spoke softly and never more than needed but with an authority that compelled close attention. The authority sprang from clear thinking, reasoned judgment, humor, firm principles, and fast, reliable recall of facts. Always courteous and gracious, she allowed thorough discussion of issues. Only when talk meandered badly did she lift her gavel. She tapped the air before actually rapping wood for order.

On occasion, other directors would worry about the money we were spending on lawyers and experts. She would describe in detail how much good we had wrung from each dollar and how inappropriate it would be for a non-profit to get financially comfortable. She felt that if we were spending money wisely on doing the right thing, other people would pitch in.

Outside the gallery, Priscilla dealt with a torrent of incoming communications. Her email was vast, but the red wooden mailbox that sat on her Noank front lawn remained a major hub. GOSA members — walking, biking or driving — stopped by 75 Front Street frequently to lift the crimson lid and pick up or leave behind bulky documents. No Cold War espionage drop could have seen more action. Her writings were factually and stylistically meticulous; GOSA’s credibility was at stake. She imposed high standards on others, too. She was one of the sharpest editors I ever worked with. And none had her tact in pointing out errors.

This too-short appreciation ends with a story about Priscilla told by Sidney Van Zandt, a GOSA director and long-time comrade at arms. Around mid-June, Sidney was about to mount a trail map poster at Haley Farm State Park. She says:

“I went over [to her house] about dinner time, when I thought she would be awake. I was told to stay only 10 minutes as she’d had a rough day.  She was thrilled to see the poster, but instead of then dismissing it and having conversation, she had me bring it closer, and she proceeded to read every word.  Because her bed was next to the wall, I had to move things around a bit for her to read the right side of the map, where she found two typos. She said some whiteout could correct one of the errors, and  suggested a dark pen to add that second ‘l’ to ‘shellfish.’ We then talked a few minutes more. I gave her a hug and then left… That was Friday afternoon, June 12 at 6 pm. She died three days later.”– A condensed version of this article appeared in the Avalonia Land Conservancy Fall 2009 newsletter.

 

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Sidney Van Zandt

We have lost a great warrior.

Priscilla Wright Pratt has been in the thick of things since the mid 1960’s. Along with Sandy Meech and his organization “ROAR” that did battle to keep the airport from being turned into a Jetport-adjunct to Kennedy airport by filling in the marshes to expand the runways. Priscilla’s brother Mortimer Wright took on the change of zone application into Duplex housing of the Haley Farm formerly the source of milk for the area.

Many of us cut our teeth on that battle. Belton Copp was our pro bono lawyer, and for the first time ever, the Commission turned it down. Mort later was elected State Representative from this area and was responsible for forming the Bluff Point Advisory Council to come up with its highest and best use that so many of us were part of.

Once the Haley Farm was clear of duplex housing, it was still ripe for development. So Priscilla and Charlie Pratt and I then joined forces to see what we could do to “Save the Haley Farm.” Priscilla contacted State officials and convinced them in her quiet way that the land needed to be preserved and that we would try to raise local funds if they would do the rest. This lady was determined and they learned for the first of the many times they would be in contact with her in the years to come, that she meant it. People came from all over the region, and The Groton Open Space Assoc. was born with a full board of Directors. We picked a name that would take us beyond this first project. Little did we know what lay ahead. It was Priscilla that then found John Hibbard of the CT Forest and Park Assoc., a well renowned statewide conservation organization. He spoke at one of our first meetings, and they offered to serve as the umbrella organization for our fund raising.

The drive began with Priscilla, with an English degree from Connecticut College, and Charlie, the architectural-photographer who put together this beautiful booklet that was sent out across the state promoting this purchase. I should say here that Priscilla has a way with words that over the years has produced letters and statements that have so very clearly and eloquently promoted the cause she believed in and gave thanks to those that helped us.

In 1970 after three years of fund raising efforts the Haley Farm became a State Park, but the developer had withdrawn the upper 50 acres that abutted Fitch High School for a separate development. Priscilla was determined to attach that portion with the lower section of Haley Farm. She reactivated GOSA into a non-profit corporation in order to receive from the Ct. Forest and Park the funds they were holding for us that were the excess raised in the initial effort. The interest earned was used to hire Stonington farmer, Tom Crowley and sons to cut the 18 years of reverting fields and vine covered walls. That has continued on for the past 23 years.

The upper 50 plus 7 acre effort went on for 32 years with development proposals of up to 95 units. She was in regular contact with both the developer and the State, and when the developer confided that the family of the next generation were wearing thin, she then passed that information to the State and within a short time the land was purchased and saved in 2002.

Before 2000 GOSA was concerned with a massive development at the top of Fort Hill of 79 units criss-crossed with many roads over land covered with many streams, vernal pools, steep slopes, and it was all going to end up in Eccleston Brook that feeds into Palmer Cove bordering the Haley Farm. Gosa proposed a plan calling for fewer units with much less stormwater runoff. Experts were hired to support these views before commissions. Once again Priscilla was quietly in contact with the owner, Nelson Merritt, and the State DEP to monitor the possible future of this land. When the developer’s option lapsed, she was there putting the pieces together as she had with the Haley Farm over 30 years before. GOSA signed with the Merritts, received a grant from the State DEP, but it took another 5 years of battle with a new developer before he finally gave up and we were free to finish the fund raising. On May 16, 2008 the funds were raised, and Priscilla signed with Nelson Merritt, placing THE MERRITT FAMILY FOREST in GOSA’s ownership. This land is the Keystone to the Greenbelt from the West side of Groton to the East.

Those are just a few of the highlights of her accomplishments. There are many other sides of this mild-mannered lady. She was an accomplished sculptor, and she played the piano and organ, and she wrote poetry.

CAN ONE PERSON MAKE A DIFFERENCE?!!!! Never is that more true than with Priscilla Pratt. Look at this map of Groton. Haley Farm, Bluff Point, The Merritt Family Forest, all there for ALL THE GENERATIONS THAT FOLLOW!

I invite you to go to the Haley Farm, even if it is to just stand inside the gate. Listen to the birds, gaze at the wild flowers, and become enriched by the works of Priscilla Wright Pratt and the organization that she helped to form. And use her as a guiding light so that all of us can make a difference in whatever directions our passions lead us.– Eulogy

– – – –

John Wirzbicki

Over the course of the last 40 years or so great chunks of Groton have been preserved for posterity as Open Space. Lots of folks were involved in the various efforts to preserve the many parcels that have been saved, but one person was central to them all.

Groton owes a huge debt of gratitude to Priscilla Pratt, who has quietly but determinedly led the efforts of the Groton Open Space Association (or its forebears) for those 40 odd years. Priscilla would set out to preserve a threatened property, and against all odds, she would succeed, time and again. Many a developer left Groton in frustration, having seen a proposal die the death of a thousand cuts at Priscilla’s hands.

Never daunted, never deterred, often unfairly derided, as soon as she saved one piece she set her sights on another.

Last night at the Town Committee meeting Andy Maynard told us that Priscilla died recently. Many people in Groton don’t know her name, but each and every one has been benefitted by her work. Not too many people have had the quiet impact that Priscilla has had on her community. She leaves behind many hundreds of acres of preserved space as her memorial. During her life she deflected attempts to honor her for her work; now that she’s gone it is certainly fitting that one of the properties she saved be named in her honor.

Below are some pictures of Haley Farm State Park and some of its inhabitants, the first property that Priscilla saved, which would, if not for her and her brother, Mort Wright, now be filled with Coast Guard housing.

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Haley Farm: A History

The Saving of the Haley Farm as a State Park

The Haley Farm is situated in the Town of Groton, Connecticut, to the east of Poquonnock Bridge and west of Noank. It was part of Governor John Winthrop the Younger’s original plantation known as Winthrop’s Neck, which included what is now Bluff Point, most of Poquonnock Bridge, Haley Farm, Mumford Cove, and Groton Long Point.

It was granted by the town of New London in 1649. At some juncture the land was divided into the Great Farm or Bluff Point and the Fort Hill Farm. In 1789, Starr Chester purchased the Fort Hill Farm, which consisted of 570.5 acres. The farm stayed in the Chester family until 1833, when it was transferred to Noyes Barber. In 1852, the farm, minus the Groton Long Point parcel, was sold to Henry B. Lewis of Westerly. In 1869, the 400 acre farm was sold to Caleb Haley, a Center Groton native and New York City Fulton Fish Market dealer, for $12,000. Mr. Haley, a “gentleman farmer,” built the massive stone walls and raced horses using the oval around “Racetrack Pond” for training.

The horses were raced at Poquonnock Bridge, which had a racetrack. After Caleb’s death in 1924, his son, Samuel, continued operating the farm, delivering milk to local homes, until his death in 1947. His daughter, Juliet Haley, inherited the farm, which she sold to A. C. White Jr. of Springfield, MA (Alcor, Inc.) in 1953. He developed the area south of the railroad tracks and north of Groton Long Point and called the development “Mumford Cove Estates.”

Mr. White only intended to develop the Mumford Cove area and placed the remaining 250-acre Haley Farm up for sale as one unit. In 1965 a request was made public by Algernon-Blair, Inc., who had an option on the land, to change the zoning from residential to multi-family for Coast Guard apartments. At the same time the Planning and Zoning Commissions were facing decisions on three other large multi-family proposals in Groton. The citizenry, particularly in the Noank section of Groton, voiced opposition to the Haley Farm zoning change.

The Planning Commission passed the application. Over 300 people then attended the Zoning Commission hearing. Individuals opposed to the zoning change met at the home of Mort and Eva Wright and hired Attorney Belton Copp who made the case that this was beautiful land and that the developer was making the proposal to make money. Attorney Copp added that “we say only that there are other sites–maybe not with the potential of economic gain–but there are other sites available for such a use.” Local legislators Lillian Erb and Fred Little introduced a bill proposing purchase of the farm for open space as an adjunct to Bluff Point Park purchased in 1963 (then only 250 acres) that had the support of the State Department of Natural Resources (changed to the Department of Environmental Protection in 1971).

The zoning board rejected the Algernon-Blair plan for a zone change to multi-family housing by unanimous vote.

Local support for purchasing the Farm as open space came from numerous sources. Petitions were circulated and a letter writing campaign was promoted as well as participation in hearings in Hartford. The Town Planning Commission went on record opposing the legislation, as they felt the land was prime residential area. The Regional Planning Agency felt the Haley Farm would be better as a development. When the Town Council met to decide whether or not to support the bill they learned that the bill had died in committee.

They then voted to support a general open space acquisition bill for southeastern Connecticut, which did not mention specific sites. Meanwhile, Alcor, Inc. sold the Haley Farm in 1966, now 250 acres, to Palmer Cove Estates of the O&G Construction Co., New Haven, CT. Efforts were made without success to have the town put the land as open space in its master plan to be eligible for federal funds.

Local Action Continues

Many informational meetings were held to see what could be done to “Save the Haley Farm.” The Groton Open Space Association (GOSA) was officially formed in December 1967. Sidney F. Van Zandt chaired both of these organizations. The State had indicated it would buy the Haley Farm if the Association would raise funds to show local interest. Basically, GOSA took over the raising of the Town’s portion of an open space grant with 25% Town, 25% State, and 50% Federal funds. The cost was $400,000. Our goal was $100,000.

The Connecticut Forest and Park Association, Inc., a private conservation organization with John E. Hibbard as Executive Director, agreed to a joint venture of the Groton Open Space Association in cooperation with the Connecticut Conservation Association and The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter to begin a statewide fund drive to raise funds to “Save the Haley Farm.” A brochure was printed with photos depicting the farm’s beauty and text describing its history.

After two years of vigorous activity, $25,000 had been raised towards the $100,000 goal but the State felt it could add no more of its funds. In October 1969, however, Mr. White took legal action against O&G Construction. They were in arrears on their payments and back taxes. Mr. White regained ownership of the Haley Farm minus the upper 50 acres that were retained by O&G. Mr. White then offered the remaining land (198 acres) to the State for $300,000. The State then contacted the Groton Open Space Association in December 1969 with the proposition that the State would buy the Farm if GOSA could raise $50,000 by March 1, 1970 (2 months). The challenge was accepted.

A supplement to the original brochure was printed and circulated announcing that the goal had been reduced from $100,000 to $50,000. Appearances on TV shows, panel discussions, meetings with local groups and organizations, conferences with individuals, and ads in the newspapers were the start of an active publicity campaign. An anonymous matching gift challenge to the residents of the Noank Fire District in the amount of $3,000, which became known as the “Match 3000,” initiated a lot of activity.

Local organizations and church groups held smorgasbords, spaghetti suppers, and cake sales. Youth groups and individuals organized pony rides, car washes‹anything and everything to raise the money. A rock concert to raise funds for the Haley Farm was promoted by Amby Burfoot, local winner of the Boston Marathon, and by the Fitch Senior High Conservation Group, headed by Johnny Kelley, also a Boston Marathon winner and teacher at Fitch. This concert generated a lot of support and publicity when the City of Groton Government made the group comply with overly strict demands in order to hold a concert in the Municipal Auditorium. (This was about the time of Columbia University and other student upheavals). The actual concert had volunteer support from the Groton Jaycees, beverages for sale donated by Pepsi-Cola, with other volunteers running the booths, policing the parking lot, and helping with the event.

Fund Drive Goes Over Top

By early February, 1970, the Town Council adopted a resolution in support of both the state’s goal of acquiring the farm and of the citizen’s fund drive. The fund drive went up and over the goal of $50,000 before the March 1, 1970 deadline. The State Bonding Commission released $100,000 and the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation of the Department of the Interior released $150,000. The papers were signed over to the State on July 17, 1970.

“Life” magazine included the Haley Farm and Sidney Van Zandt in a special feature entitled “Battles Won” that was in the July 4, 1970, issue as well as a “special” environment issue dated August 3, 1970.

When the State acquired the property, the farm buildings were removed because of their poor condition. The house had burned down in the late 1950s. Photographs and dimensions of the farm buildings were recorded before demolition, thanks to a Reader’s Digest grant applied for by the Groton Senior Girl Scout Troop. The farmer who was leasing the property for grazing cows and horses was no longer allowed to keep them there. Once the animals were no longer on the farm, the fields began reverting to brush and woods at an alarming rate.

Various Boy Scout projects helped to clear cedars, sumac and bullbriars from the edge of the fields to expose some of the stone walls. In 1985, the Groton Open Space Association, using interest from the additional funds raised, hired a farmer to cut the open fields and each year to try to expose more stone walls. This yearly cutting continues, so that a degree of openness has been maintained. At present, people enjoy the farm in its undeveloped state for hiking, jogging, dog walking, and cross-country skiing.

Two master thesis studies were commissioned by GOSA–the first in 1972 by Stephan Syz entitled “The Vegetation of the Haley Farm State Park, Groton, CT, with Recommendations for Land Use.” The report was his Masters thesis in Botany from Connecticut College. The second was a 12-week study of the uses of Haley Farm and Bluff Point conducted by nine students at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. One of the nine students, Phillip Hoose, was hired by GOSA to conduct an in-depth study over the summer of 1977.

Unfinished Business Finally Completed

The upper 50 acres still owned by O&G Construction was always considered a matter of unfinished business, particularly by Charles N. and Priscilla W. Pratt, original founders and directors of the Groton Open Space Association, who continued over the years a leadership role in realizing the vision of a completed Haley Farm. In 1996, GOSA was reorganized, incorporated in the State of Connecticut, and in 1997 received 501(c)3, tax-exempt status from the federal government. The Save the Haley Farm Fund that was held in escrow by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association was transferred to GOSA. A fund drive was held to add to the fund so that the yearly mowing of the Haley Farm could continue.

GOSA had kept the issue of the remaining 50 unpurchased acres alive at both the town and the state levels by repeated advocacy since 1970, when the original purchase of 200 acres from Mr. White had been made. Three attempts to develop the property were successfully opposed by GOSA and other concerned citizens and groups. One was for 48 houses on the O&G property; another was for a 95-unit cluster development on both the O&G property and the adjacent Briggs property; and a third was an attempt to obtain a 50-foot right of way across town property to open up both the Briggs and the O&G lands for intensive development.

In May of 2000, GOSA received a letter from the agent for the Guerra-DeAngelis Trustees (O&G), Mr. Fouad M. Hassan, in reply to yet another GOSA letter of inquiry, that the issue of acquiring the 50 acres for open space could be seriously explored again. GOSA forwarded this information to the DEP, and followed up with another letter to Mr. Hassan, requesting more specific information. On July 17, 2000 Mr. Hassan, who was now also representing Bowen Briggs, wrote GOSA, with copies to the Town of Groton and the State of Connecticut DEP, offering specific terms to sell. The time was right and successful negotiations began between the DEP, Guerra-DeAngelis Trustees (22 heirs), and Bowen Briggs, who owned 7 abutting acres. Issues of price and availability of state funds that had kept the parties apart for so many years were resolved.

Legal documents were exchanged and signed, and on May 28, 2002, two months short of 32 years after the purchase of 200 acres from Mr. White, deeds for both the O&G and the Briggs properties transferring ownership to the State of Connecticut were recorded at Groton Town Hall.

After persistent and determined effort, the Haley Farm battle had finally been won. The Haley Farm State Park now has 267 acres preserved for open space, including 12 acres, the “Racetrack Pond” area, purchased by the State from Mumford Cove Association in 2001. A recently completed pedestrian bridge crosses the railroad tracks at the southern end of the park and joins Haley Farm with Bluff Point Coastal Reserve for a total of 1000+ acres, a jewel of a complex for the enjoyment of all.

By Sidney Van Zandt and Priscilla Pratt

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