June 25, 2022

Op-Ed: Author Responds to Issues Raised by Town of Old Lyme Property on Buttonball Rd., Requests Absence of Acrimony

Old Lyme municipal property located at 36-1 Buttonball Road has been the subject of considerable discussion in news publications and on social media.  

By way of disclosure, I am the Old Lyme Open Space Commission secretary, but I write strictly as a private citizen who has volunteered to help preserve the town’s natural resources and scenic charm.

Two issues have been raised regarding this property – that the Open Space Commission has “hidden” the land from the public, and that the Commission is opposed to public access to it.

Regarding the first – in the roughly five years that I’ve served on the Commission, I do not remember this property ever being the subject of a discussion. 

As the principal author of the town’s approved 2020 Open Space Plan, I was aware that a definitive inventory of town-owned open space was lacking. Thus, the plan reads: 

“The Town of Old Lyme owns 936 acres of open space land in six sizable open space areas accessible for hiking and public access, and two other areas [Lords Woods and Eklund Pond].

NOTE: This total does not include various parcels of town open space owned by fee within subdivisions. When added, that land will increase the above town total.”

Any property omissions in the Plan or on Open Space webpages have not been intentional. They are rather a result of record-keeping issues.  As an example, at a recent Town Meeting, property at 18-2 Short Hills Road, Old Lyme was accepted as “open space.” It’s my understanding that the deed to this parcel identifies it as “town property” without reference to open space. This example is not meant to criticize the town land use office but is offered instead as an illustration of how an open space inventory can become complicated, particularly going back decades with land records. 

The adage “squeaky wheels get grease” bears mentioning as well.  As with many of the town’s boards and commissions, members of Open Space are all volunteers, we often serve on multiple agencies, and time is exhausted meeting basic stewardship demands, pursuing new acquisitions, and addressing various issues that arise, such as a pending, time sensitive request under current review to allow equestrian use on trails. Unlike regulatory agencies, Open Space has no town staff to assist in its work. 

Research into land records has unfortunately languished due to a continuing need to address more immediate demands. 

I commend Harbor Management for its work in seeking public access to our waterways, particularly as someone who personally enjoys kayaking. 

Regardless of the past history of 36-1 Buttonball Road, Harbor Management’s highlighting of the property has brought it into new focus.

The jurisdiction of particular agencies over the land is a legal question to be determined. It does appear, however, that a predecessor of the current Commission actively obtained this property on the town’s behalf. That said, my hope is that various town agencies can work together cooperatively on this property.

The second point to address is allegations that Open Space is “fighting” to keep the public from this property.  

The Commission has a charter that the town’s citizens approved in a Town Meeting vote, and which is now an ordinance (underlining added):

“Supervise and manage acquired open space lands for passive recreational use by the public, protect and preserve the natural resources and wildlife contained therein and develop appropriate standards and limitations for the use of parcels of land acquired pursuant to the provisions of this article to assure their continued use as open space.” § 20-56 D.

At issue is whether public access over salt marsh to a creek that runs into the Black Hall River is advisable. Years ago, the Conservation Commission addressed that exact issue and for its own reasons declined to pursue that access. 

In revisiting the property today, the First Selectman asked Open Space to seek an objective, expert review on whether salt marsh or wildlife might be impacted by river access at the site. The Commission is doing just that and has agreed to share information with Harbor Management and Inland Wetlands. Pursuant to a request from the town’s chief executive and in line with its mandate, it’s a charge the Commission needs to follow. The process will be transparent, and any finding will be public. 

A concomitant issue is a condition that was attached to the town’s acquisition of the property from the State of Connecticut that requires its use for river access. It has been argued that absent that specific use, the property may be reclaimed by the state. Thus, such access, as asserted, seems to be the controlling concern, so it is first being addressed. 

At the same time, some have suggested the property would be suitable for viewing the Black Hall River and the surrounding marshes. The area is populated by an array of wildlife, including nearby active osprey nests, and often seen egrets, great blue herons, eagles, and various other species. 

36-1 Buttonball Road would make a wonderful viewing area for town residents to enjoy the area’s natural beauty and to observe wildlife. I would fully support that use, and I suspect my fellow Commission members would as well.

During the entire time I’ve served, Open Space has been committed to promoting public access to the town conserved property. In fact, a good portion of my volunteer time has been spent drafting public messages to just that effect. Last evening, the Commission, with the Old Lyme Land Trust and the Old Lyme Inn, sponsored a “hikers’ happy hour” on Champlain South to encourage visitation.

An unfortunate by-product of the 36-1 Buttonball Road discussion has been the denigration of the Open Space Commission co-chairs.  

Amanda Blair has devoted hundreds of hours of volunteer time to the town on behalf of open space. She personally shepherded a detailed and complex purchase of the McCulloch farm to closing, and the subsequent necessary amendments to its conservation easement, to allow public access to this beautiful property.

Evan Griswold has served the town for decades, including on Open Space from its origin. He is one of the most dedicated conservationists I know and always has the best interests of nature and the town in mind. Contrary to public comments, Mr. Griswold, as the commission lead in view of Mrs. Blair’s recusal, is not against public access to 36-1 Buttonball Road. He is rather doing what the commission’s charter requires and what the First Selectman has requested – attempting to prudently balance the interaction between people and nature. 

In its various property negotiations and purchases and in its stewardship of town land, the Open Space Commission has strived to respectfully conduct town business. Let us all proceed courteously and without acrimony.