Good Deal On Walker Woods,0,7266967.story

Good Deal On Walker Woods

June 23 2006

Many people in Simsbury moved to the town to enjoy its rustic charm. So many, in fact, that keeping the rural character has become a challenge. But residents now have a rare opportunity to preserve a large piece of sylvan splendor.

Last year, the Ethel Walker School announced plans to develop 122 large houses on more than 400 acres of woodland it owns behind the school. The proposal drew considerable opposition; a group called “Save The Woods” formed to fight the development of the pristine forests and wetlands.

Meanwhile, officials brought in The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit conservation organization that has helped save 4,000 acres in Connecticut from development, to find a way to preserve the Ethel Walker land.

Virtually the only way to preserve open land in this state is to acquire it outright or buy the development rights. The trust and the school announced an agreement this week that would allow the town to buy development rights to the land, 424 acres on Bushy Hill Road. The purchase would preserve the land forever as open space.

The price is $13.85 million. The town’s share is expected to be around $11.1 million, with the difference coming, officials hope, from private fundraising coordinated by the trust and aided by town residents and Ethel Walker alumni. State grants could further defray the expense. A $467,000 grant from the state’s open space program has already been approved, pending completion of a preservation agreement.

The Ethel Walker property is a critical piece of open land. The school has allowed public access for hiking for many years. The land sits atop a major aquifer that provides much of the town’s drinking water. Finally, it is connected to other wooded areas, a link in a corridor of protected lands. This is significant for wildlife migration and the protection of deep woods flora and fauna, among other things.

Town leaders must put the proposal before a fall referendum if it’s to happen. It is a significant amount of money, but not out of line with what many other towns have committed to open space protection. Simsbury has taken many positive steps to preserve farms and forests, and to enhance its town center. The Ethel Walker purchase would continue this evolving smart growth strategy. It’s hard to believe the town will let the opportunity pass.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant

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