Old Lyme considers purchase of 35 acres of forest

Oct. 4—OLD LYME — The Open Space Commission is looking for public support to spend as much as $400,000 for about 35 acres of forest land its says will provide enhanced access to existing trail systems.

Officials last week said the property off Whippoorwill Road, which adjoins the 195-acre Ames Open Space, will make it possible for people to park safely and enter the trails more easily.

The funding will come from a $418,000 reserve fund set aside for preservation purchases. Open Space Commission Co-Chairman Amanda Blair said officials are hopeful a grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will cover half the cost so the town will only have to use $200,000 of its reserves.

Blair said property owner Steven Ames is providing the town a $200,000, two-year loan based on current interest rates.

With the Whippoorwill Road trailhead closed due to beaver-related flooding, the only access to the Ames Open Space is from the Evergreen Trail off Boggy Hole Road on the opposite side of the tract.

Open Space Commission member Gregory Futoma said the proposed purchase would give hikers a relatively flat place to enter the preserve, compared to the Evergreen Trail that has hikers entering on a ridge.

"There's a lot of elevation to go up and down there," he said of the existing Evergreen Trail entrance. "If you're not the best hiker, it's a much harder hike to get to this point."

Blair said the proposed purchase would allow hikers to enter the Ames preserve from Whippoorwill Road in a convenient location with caves on one side and beaver and bird observation areas in the other direction.

The commission received $2,500 from the Middletown-based Rockfall Foundation and $400 from the Hartford Audubon Society for hand-hewn benches and educational displays to highlight two wildlife observation areas focused on the unique habitat created by beavers.

Another highlight of the Ames trail system is an imposing rock overhang that was used as many as 4,255 years ago for protection from the winter elements by Native American hunters, according to town historian John Pfeiffer.

The Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance this month each endorsed the purchase of the 35-acre property. It goes to the Planning Commission next, and will require approval from voters at a town meeting.

According to Blair, about 20% of land in Old Lyme is preserved. That includes land owned by the town, the Old Lyme Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and the state. She said the figure lines up with state environmental protection goals for open space.

According to the DEEP website, the agency's goal is to protect 673,210 acres, or 21%, of the land in the state as open space by 2023. Less than half is to be state-owned property, with the other 11% owned by towns, private nonprofit land conservation organizations, water companies, and the federal government, the agency said.

Open Space Commission member Greg Futoma said the purchase will also help the town further its goal of creating an interconnected, town-wide hiking trail. The property sits across the street from the 312-acre McCulloch Family Open Space owned by the town and the 205-acre Lay-Allen Preserve owned by the Old Lyme Land Trust.

"These pieces are part of a jigsaw puzzle," Futoma said.

First Selectman Tim Griswold last week reiterated the benefits of another access point to the Ames Open Space.

"This is a nice way to get to the property with a little better parking," he said.

Blair said parking plans are in the formative phases as a civil engineer and surveyor assess the property. She said she will also need to bring in the state archaeologist to make sure construction of the parking lot would not disturb any artifacts.

There is currently room for eight to 12 spaces in the cul de sac at the Evergreen Trail entrance, according to Blair.

Board of Finance meeting minutes show the town would pay for 40% of road maintenance costs on the private road shared with three other properties in The Woods at Whippoorwill development.

The Open Space Commission will hold an informational session Friday at 9 a.m. at the Town Hall. Those wishing to attend remotely can call (605) 472-5727 and enter the access code 3819718.