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Haley Farm and Bluff Point: A Personal Reminiscence

By Sidney F. Van Zandt

[The following speech was written by Sidney Van Zandt, one of the founders and the first president of GOSA, for the annual meeting Oct. 8, 2002, at which Priscilla Pratt, the current GOSA president, and her late husband, Charles N. Pratt, were honored for 40 years of untiring dedication to saving of open space.]

This evening is a special one for everyone in this town and for members of the Groton Open Space Association as we present an award to Charles N. and Priscilla W. Pratt. Before we present this award, I feel it is important to give some background to the Haley Farm addition of this year. Some of this information was taken from the eulogy that I gave on April 18, 2002, at the memorial service for Charlie.

My friendship with Charlie and Priscilla Pratt goes back to 1961 when we were involved together in a successful battle led by Priscilla¹s brother, Mort Wright, to deny a change of zone by the then owner of the Haley Farm for development of multi-family dwellings there. The developer wanted to allow for 425 duplex units ostensibly for the Coast Guard that was then stationed at Avery Point. As it turned out, the Coast Guard left the area for Ellis Island in New York Harbor a few years later.

Not too long after the zoning battle, when I was working in my vegetable garden, Charlie’s truck came slowly around the corner and pulled over to the edge of lawn. He got out and came over. After a few words to get conversation going, he got straight to the point.

“Sidney, what are we going to do to save the Haley Farm?”

Well, that was a BIG question! And that was the beginning of our many years of effort with the “Save the Haley Farm Committee,” which later became the “Groton Open Space Association.” Charlie and Priscilla were both founders and directors on the board. Priscilla was corresponding secretary. (I was founder and president.) They have long been quiet lions working away with a steady focus to Save the Haley Farm.

As it turns out, Priscilla, while in Hartford (on Pratt Street, would you believe?), saw an organization of interest called the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. She told her tale of our plight to John E. Hibbard, secretary-forester of the organization. John was most helpful and came down to one of our early meetings. That organization rose to the occasion and offered to be our tax-exempt organization, did all the sending of literature and receiving of the funds, as well as giving us advice and moral support throughout the while project.

Brochure Promotes Haley Farm

There was to be a statewide mailing, but–for Charlie–a letter alone would not do. Charlie and Priscilla put together a brochure that included photographs and text, which incorporated the present, past and geography. It was a brilliant work of art. This project had to be a promotion because the officials in the Town of Groton, as well as the regional planning agency, felt that there was PLENTY of open space around. The town wanted to develop the area, so ours was a lonely battle. It was a battle to sidestep our town government, meaning our organization was to raise funds for the town¹s portion of shared town-state-federal open space grants.

After two years of vigorous activity, $25,000 had been raised toward the $100,000 goal. But on December of 1969, the state gave us a proposition that it would buy the farm if we could bring that total to $50,000 by March 1, 1970. (That was only two months away.) The challenge was accepted.

What followed was a marvel of community cooperation that included local organizations and church groups that held smorgasbords, spaghetti suppers, and bake sales. Youth groups and individuals organized pony rides, car washes, and anything and everything else to raise the money. An anonymous matching fund known as “Match 3000” to a rock concert held at the City of Groton Auditorium took the fund-raising challenge by storm.

We went over the top. The deeds were filed in July of 1970, but it was a bittersweet victory because the developer had held back the upper 50 acres, the ones that abut the high school all along the baseball field. Charlie and Priscilla would not rest with that unfinished business, and they worked steadily thereafter on various ways of raising the funds to add that acreage to the rest of the park.

Shortly after the Haley Farm Battle was won, with hardly any time to catch our breath, the Bluff Point Advisory Council was formed by a bill passed by the legislature. The council was to come up with a plan for the “highest and best use” of the area. The board was made up of 20 representatives of organizations, towns and city boards, and individuals. Charlie was the press secretary. Among present GOSA directors on the board were Tom Hatfield, Edith Fairgrieve and Omar Allvord. Omar and I were co-chairmen.

At the time, the state only owned a 250-acre strip along the Poquonnock River, including the beach and the bluff, but not the ridge or the land facing Mumford Cove, or the former railroad land south of the tracks.

Battles Follow Over Bluff Point

Memorable battles ensued over numerous objectionable proposals. Some of the plans we fought:

–a four-lane highway from a cross-town road and another from I-95.

–a Plan of Development for the 250 acres that called for a 5,000 car parking lot.

–a sewer outfall through the east side of the peninsula that would cut through the beach to empty into the Sound.

–a 400-boat marina.

–an industrial park.

–two tries to promote a bridge from Long Island landing here and on Fishers Island.

–a subterranean oil storage facility.

There also was a five-year battle to expand the airport, as well as to develop a barge terminal and a helicopter landing port. We were successful in all those battles, and after the smoke cleared many years later, the state had purchased the remaining land, which then brought the total to 778 acres. A bill promoted by the Bluff Point Advisory Council, protecting the park from intensive development, was passed in the legislature in 1975 mandating Bluff Point be a Coastal Reserve, the first on the East Coast.

After the Haley Farm became a state park, the farmer who was grazing his cows and horses there had to remove them, and the barns and outbuildings were taken down by the state. Short of funds, the state more or less abandoned this lovely, newly acquired area. The fields were reverting to woodland at a rapid rate. However, with the interest earned each year from our “over the top” fund drive, Charlie and Priscilla arranged with a farmer to have the fields cut once a year.

In the late 1990s, Charlie and Priscilla incorporated the Groton Open Space Association as a non-profit so they could continue to raise more funds to maintain the area, promote annual Clean-up Days at the park, give support to the Town of Groton open space referendums and deal with numerous other environmental issues.

GOSA has been an active advocate at both town and state levels for over 32 in the effort to secure the O&G property, lovingly referred to as the “Upper 50 Acres.” Three attempts to develop the property were successfully opposed by GOSA and other concerned citizens and groups. One was for 48 houses on the O&G property; another was for a 95 unit cluster development on both the O&G property and the adjacent Briggs property; and a third was an attempt to obtain a 50 foot right-of-way across town property to open up both the Briggs and O&G lands for intensive development. Serious negotiations between the state and the owners of the land belonging to O&G (22 heirs were part of the trust for O&G) as well as Bowen Briggs began in May, 2000. GOSA was the catalyst. Issues of price and availability of funds that had kept the parties apart for so many years were resolved. The state¹s Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program made the purchases possible.

On May 28, 2002, two months short of 32 years, the Upper 50 Acres and the adjacent 7 acres of the Briggs property were recorded at Groton Town Hall and the 57.09 acres were added to the Haley Farm State Park, which now totals 267.37 acres preserved for open space.

A recently completed pedestrian bridge crosses the Amtrak line at the southern end of the park, and joins Haley Farm State Park with the Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve for a total 1,000+ acres.

What a gift your efforts have been! It is our pleasure to present this award to you for the 40 years of untiring effort and dedication to acquire, protect and preserve open space in our town, including the more than 1,000 acres of Bluff Point and the Haley Farm with its latest addition of 57.09 acres on the 28th of May 2002.

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