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The Merritt Family Forest A Reality After 5-Year Delay

GROTON — The Groton Open Space Association on May 16, 2008, bought a 75-acre wooded tract from F.L. Merritt, Inc. for $1 million following a nearly five-year court battle with a developer who had sought the land for a 48-house residential subdivision.

The property, which runs along Route 1 between the top of Fort Hill and Fishtown Road, henceforth will be known as The Merritt Family Forest. Since 1868, it had belonged to the Merritt family.

Paperwork transferring ownership was signed by Nelson A. Merritt, president of F.L. Merritt, and by Priscilla W. Pratt, president of GOSA, at the Pratt-Wright Gallery in Noank.

Ms. Pratt said:

“GOSA is extremely grateful this day to be able to add this beautiful land to the preserved open space of Groton. Deepest appreciation goes to the Merritt family who patiently endured five years of a developer’s fruitless litigation; to the Department of Environmental Protection who believed so steadfastly in the rightness of the acquisition; to the lawyers who worked so tirelessly in our behalf; and to the public who have encouraged us both morally and financially throughout the years. The triumph of this achievement belongs to them as well as to GOSA, and it belongs especially to the children and adults of today and tomorrow, who will be able to enjoy forever the unspoiled natural treasures of The Merritt Family Forest.”

Mr. Merritt said, “It is wonderful that GOSA, with the assistance of the State of Connecticut, has found the way to preserve this forest primeval for all future generations and for all time.”

State Rep. Elissa Wright (D-Groton), who attended the signing, expressed deep appreciation to the Merritts for ensuring the preservation and protection of the land. She added: “As the Merritt family has done for generations, our generation needs to start to think in 20 to 100 year time spans — that exceed our own life spans and beyond our current terms of office — to conserve ecosystems, protect the land, and preserve habitat and biodiversity for our grandchildren, great grandchildren, and beyond.”

GOSA, the new owner, has given a conservation easement to the State of Connecticut providing that the land shall be kept in its natural, scenic and open condition in perpetuity. Public access is granted for hiking, jogging and for other non-motorized passive recreational uses that will be listed in GOSA’s management plan, currently being created.

Of the total purchase price, $650,000 was supplied by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Open Space and Watershed Land Acquisition Grant Program. The remainder was raised by GOSA through contributions from individuals and from institutions. GOSA still must raise funds to pay off an unsecured bridge loan, recoup acquisition expenses, and build up an endowment for insurance and other future outlays. Final goal of a GOSA fund-raising campaign chaired by GOSA Director Sidney Van Zandt is $1,080,000.

The Merritt Property, rich in wildlife and plant variety, functions as a green bridge between protected lands on its eastern and western sides, and it is itself an impressive piece of rugged woodland. It is crossed by Eccleston Brook and a tributary, Cowslip Brook, which converge and flow into Palmer Cove and Fisher’s Island Sound. To the west are the Bluff Point and Haley Farm state parks (more than 1,000 acres together) and the Mortimer Wright Preserve (88 acres owned by the town). To the east of the Merritt property lie the town-owned Pequot Woods (140 acres) and Beebe Pond Park (95 acres), as well as some 75 acres protected by private conservation easements.

GOSA had signed a purchase agreement with F.L. Merritt April 14, 2003. The next day, Ravenswood Construction LLC, a Cheshire developer, filed notice of an impending suit to force Merritt to sell to Ravenswood, based on a claim of a valid prior contract. In June, the developer filed an additional suit, this time against GOSA and nine individuals, claiming interference with its contract and abuse of the legal process. Ravenswood withdrew the suit in July, as the state attorney general prepared to back GOSA.

On May 18, 2005, a New London Superior Court jury found in favor Merritt and co-defendant GOSA, determining that the developer did not have a valid contract to buy the land from Merritt. Ravenswood appealed to the Appellate Court. The jury verdict was upheld by the Appellate Court on Dec. 12, 2007.

The issue finally was settled in January 2008, when Ravenswood decided not to seek a state Supreme Court review of the Appellate Court’s ruling.

Atty. William Kroll, of Salem, represented F.L. Merritt in the New London Superior Court jury trial, with William Hescock, of North Stonington representing GOSA. Paulann H. Sheets of Groton was attorney for GOSA during Ravenswood’s short-lived suit against GOSA and the nine individuals.

Lead attorney for the defendants in the appellate proceedings was Elizabeth Leamon, then of the New Haven firm of Tyler, Cooper & Alcorn, with Ben Solnit, a Tyler-Cooper partner, contributing to the brief. (Atty. Leamon now is associated with Murtha Cullina LLP in Guilford.) Gerald A. Cory of New London appeared for F.L. Merritt.

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