courant.com/news/local/fv/hc-simwood0907.artsep07,0,6794101.story

Courant.com

`A Win-Win For Everyone Involved'

Event, Open To The Public, Is Scheduled To Celebrate Town's Purchase Of 330 Acres At Ethel Walker School

By LORETTA WALDMAN

Courant Staff Writer

September 7, 2007

SIMSBURY

A hilltop at Ethel Walker School will be the site of an event Sept. 23 celebrating the town's purchase of a 330-acre portion of school property known as the Ethel Walker Woods. Although the deal closed in June, the celebration will mark a fundraising effort that brought in the millions of dollars that were needed to make it happen.

"We are absolutely thrilled that this has come to this conclusion," Hugh Hildesley, president of Ethel Walker's board of trustees, said Thursday. "It's a win-win for everyone involved. The woods are preserved, and the residents of Simsbury and students at Ethel Walker will continue to enjoy them, as they are, in perpetuity. We're ecstatic at the whole outcome."

Voters in November narrowly approved spending up to $7 million - $5 million from bonding and $2 million from town reserves - to purchase the wooded parcel from the private girls school. Two private groups - The Trust for Public Land and Keep the Woods, a local grass-roots organization - committed to raising the remaining $2.75 million that was needed to close on the first phase of the $13.9 million deal. That goal was met in late March.

Private donors include Ethel Walker alumnae and conservation organizations such as the Farmington River Watershed Association and Trout Unlimited. Donors, including individual contributors, have been sent invitations to the event, as have school, town and state officials, including Gov. M. Jodi Rell and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District.

But the celebration, scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m., is open to the public and meant to give residents a chance to see and explore the area, organizers say. Walker students will be conducting tours, and updated maps of the trails will be available, school spokeswoman Vivian Elba said. There also will be music, light refreshments and a short program with remarks by the leaders of the parties involved in the deal, including Bessie Speers, Ethel Walker's head of school, Melissa Spear, state director of The Trust for Public Land, Simsbury First Selectman Tom Vincent, and Susan Masino of Keep the Woods.

The hilltop site of the celebration is alternately known as Cluett Hill, after a dorm that occupied the spot until the 1960s, and Bushy Hill, from which Bushy Hill Road gets its name.

The public-private partnership forged to buy the land became a model for preserving costly open space. According to Spear, it was 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. The land also 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 purchase of the 330 acres is the first step in a multiphase acquisition agreement between the town and Ethel Walker. The town will make a $1 million deposit toward the second-phase purchase of the remaining 90 acres and has five years to come up with the $3.1 million needed to complete the deal. The state Department of Environmental Protection is providing a $917,000 grant toward the purchase.

The town and school had discussed the possible sale of the property for years, and, although both sides agreed on the value of preserving it, they remained far apart on its worth. Keep the Woods and TPL stepped into the stalemate in 2005, when Walker officials announced preliminary plans to build a 122-house subdivision on the site.

"That's when the grass-roots group became important," said Diane Nash, a leader with KTW. "I still pinch myself [at the thought of us actually reaching our goal], but when you have everybody wanting the same result. ... It sounds naïve, but if you really want it, you can do it. There's a way to do it."

Anyone planning to attend the event is asked to call 860-408-4252 by Sept. 14. For directions or more information, visit any of these three websites: www.keepthewoods.org; www.ethelwalker.org; www.townofsimsbury.com.

Contact Loretta Waldman at lwaldman@courant.com.