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Leading Town Into The Woods

Activists Beating Odds In Simsbury Land Deal

By LORETTA WALDMAN
Courant Staff Writer

February 25 2007

SIMSBURY -- A wet snow is falling at dusk as a mismatched assortment of residents trickle into the Maple Tree Inn, and take their seats around a crooked line of tables in a banquet room next to the bar.

They don't look particularly mighty, in their well-worn corduroy pants, rumpled sweaters, duck boots and clogs. Nor is it clear what they have in common: a retired real estate broker, retired Presbyterian minister, a registered dietitian, a college professor and an amateur songwriter with graying mutton chops and mustache.

But make no mistake, this is an army.

Equipped with laptops and cellphones, they have conquered both the odds and naysayers.

This group of 20 or so people are the heart of Keep the Woods, a grass-roots band of unlikely agitators who are considered the force behind the town's recent vote to buy the 424 acres of open space known as the Ethel Walker Woods.

The mood at the meeting, held Thursday night, is giddy. They are closing in on a major victory.

Susan Masino, a Trinity College neuroscience professor, mother of two and one of the group's more prominent figures, has just announced that they are within $300,000 of a $2.75 million fundraising goal, money members will contribute toward the $13.9 million purchase price for the property.

But as the meeting winds down, Diane Nash, an affable retired real estate broker who has emerged as another leader, reels everyone back to earth. "What are you going to do in the next couple of weeks to close this $300,000 gap?" she asks as they begin putting on their coats.

The closing date on the deal is the end of next month; members are racing to beat the March 15 deadline they set to raise the cash. The deal is an ingenious, multi-layered arrangement brokered by Keep the Woods in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group.

Not only is the transaction a model for acquiring costly open space, said Melissa Spear, a project manager with the trust, it is one of the largest in state history involving the acquisition of open space by a single entity or municipality.

The lush green hills and pastures west of Bushy Hill Road are a haven for hiking, cross-country skiing, fishing, horseback riding and bird-watching. Owned by and adjacent to the private Ethel Walker School, the land is an important wildlife habitat and sits atop an aquifer that supplies drinking water to more than half of Simsbury's 23,000 residents.

The town and the school had discussed the possible sale of the property for years. Both sides agreed on the value of preserving it as open space, but remained far apart on its worth.

Then, in spring 2005, the school announced preliminary plans to build a 122-house subdivision on the property. Ethel Walker's board of trustees determined that the school's greatest asset was the land, said Iain Sorrell, a member of the board and chairman of its land committee.

"It was not that the school wanted to develop, but it saw no other option to secure the school's financial future," he said.

It was that jolt, Masino and Nash said, that transformed a disparate group into Keep the Woods.

"It was scary," said Nash, a seasoned manager with a knack for rallying people. "A lot of people are not used to looking at development plans, but I knew from my experience in real estate, that every piece of available land was going to have a house."

Nash and Masino sat next to each other at the town meeting at which the school presented its development plans. Masino was filling out a work-related grant application while listening to the presentation - a level of multi-tasking skill that Nash said impressed her.

"Who are you?" Masino remembers Nash bluntly asking her after the meeting.

In the nearly two years since, the two have become friends and are in constant contact, conferring by cellphone and e-mail about petitions, fundraisers and myriad other matters day and night. Both hard-charging, type A personalities, they laugh about the absurd extent to which the project has consumed their lives.

Nash said she took her laptop along on a recent cruise, sneaking to her cabin to read e-mails against her husband's orders. Her neighbors hide when they see her coming, she says, fearing she will hit them up for a donation. When a potential contributor jogged past her and wouldn't stop long enough to talk, she ran alongside him, she said.

But other members are no less committed.

Judy Schaeffer, a retired special education teacher, said she stood in the cold for hours on Election Day to remind residents about the vote on the land. In August, she prowled the broiling black top at Simsbury High School gathering signatures for a petition from residents lined up in cars to dispose of household hazardous waste.

Others have contributed artwork, run phone banks and solicited items for auction.

"Anyone who has ever walked these woods after a snowfall ... it's almost like a religious experience," Schaeffer said. "I would do almost anything to save these woods. It's a very special place."

The hundreds of hours of work bore fruit in November, when voters narrowly approved spending up to $7 million - $5 million from bonding and $2 million from town reserves - to purchase 330 acres of the preserve. Sorrell credited Keep the Woods with making the difference both in brokering the deal, bringing the Trust for Public Land in to facilitate it and selling it to the voters.

"Keep the Woods has been incredibly instrumental in terms of catalyzing this whole process," he said. "Susan Masino and Diane Nash have been extraordinary in raising awareness and educating the community and moving this along."

One of the group's latest fundraising tactics is selling items on eBay.

Dave Chase, a Keep the Woods volunteer and the retired Presbyterian minister, gleefully reported at the meeting Thursday having raised $1,200 so far on the auction site, selling donated items that included a new toilet seat that sold for $30.

"The story here is that everybody here gave something," said Nash.

To cover the full cost, the town will also use a $900,000 state grant, along with the $2.75 million in private donations being raised by the two organizations. When the deal closes at the end of March, the town will set aside a $1 million deposit to secure an easement on the remaining 94 acres and lock in a price of $3.1 million.

Town officials then will have until 2012 to decide if and how they want to pay for that portion of the land.

"This project has really been an incredible example of democracy in action," said Masino. "We had a lot of obstacles to overcome. However, there is no doubt that it has helped to have people with a complete and utter dedication and an eye focused entirely on one prize - preserving this property."

Contact Loretta Waldman at lwaldman@courant.com.

Copyright 2007, Hartford Courant