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Fund for the Environment had been about to announce their intention to support GOSA in court when the suit was withdrawn.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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