Old Lyme — In 1992 after a career out west with the U.S. Geological Survey, David McCulloch returned to Old Lyme to the farm where his mother – then in her 90s – raised him. He returned to land that his parents had purchased in 1927, and where he worked as a farmhand throughout his childhood – cleaning, milking cows, planting, harvesting, hauling wood. Having sworn off farm life, McCulloch returned and with a few other longtime residents began organizing for open space in Old Lyme.
McCulloch himself in his 90s now, has agreed to sell 300 acres of the farm property to the Open Space Commission of Old Lyme for $600,000. The acquisition will allow the town to connect the Ames Open Space and the Lay Preserve creating an over 700-acre area for public use and recreation.
“In 1997 we started all this work toward obtaining open spaces,” said George James, an 89-year-old resident of Old Lyme who helped start the initiative with McCulloch. James is a current member of the Conservation Commission, he walks and grooms trails throughout town each morning with his dog Holly.
The Old Lyme Planning and Open Space Commissions have unanimously supported the acquisition. First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder has already signed the contract on behalf of the town. If approved at the annual town budget meeting on May 20, the Open Space Commission will acquire the farm, along with two three-acre parcels designated for single-family affordable housing. The proposed development would be off Flat Rock Hill Road, adjacent to lots previously given to the town by McCulloch for affordable housing.
The acquisition would be a big step toward the creation of a cross-town trail systems for hikers, joggers and bikers. “It is a long term process, but we are not too far away from having it,” said Michael Kiernan, the president of the Old Lyme Land Trust. “I would say another major acquisition and one other smaller one and you will be able to walk from the parking lot at exit 71 all the way to the Old lyme Inn.”
Initially, the hope was that the trail connecting the Lay Preserve through McCulloch Farm to the Ames property would be available for an inaugural walk on National Trails Day, the first weekend in June, however, recent significant beaver activity has caused flooding that will limit access to the properties after the purchase.
According to James, the Open Space commission “allowed beavers to come in and occupy the Ames property this past fall and now you can’t access our property without a boat. Beavers have been very busy. Water has flooded front yards and the entire Whippoorwill side.”
It’s estimated that the beavers have constructed four dams on the Blackhall River, Blackhall Pond and Bucky Brook. The dams have resulted in a substantial portion of flooding in the Ames Property, impacting habitat and killing hundreds of trees.
The recent decrease in water levels on the property suggests that the beaver has left or been taken off the property, said Kiernan. The Open Space commission is also looking into purchasing a beaver deceiver device in order to discourage the beaver from returning to the property and causing more damage.
Whether to allow beavers to alter the landscape of nature preserves and open spaces is a difficult problem conservationists often deal with, said David Gumbart, the director of land management for the Nature Conservancy Connecticut Field Office. “Beavers have forever changed the landscape and in time properties do come back.” Such flooding can be a problem, Gumbart explained, when the flooding is near residential areas, impacts septic systems and groundwater. In Old Lyme, flooding to a parking lot and trailhead off Whippoorwill Road currently limits access to the 225-acre Ames property.
“We do not know yet when [the trail] will be open and completed. The full cross-town trail requires a couple of additional links before it can be fully put in place and we just don’t know how long that will take or where it will happen,” Kiernan said. “The town is going to have to do something to make the trails in Ames viable such as a bridge or boardwalk.”
George James, who has blazed over ten trails in the Ames property alone and dozens more in other properties that are not recorded on the town’s open space maps, does his best on his morning walks to keep those paths clear and walkable. But right now, he said, in some ways it feels like he is fighting a losing battle with the beavers.
The Open Space Commission does not have a regular reliable crew of volunteers to help with maintenance and construction projects. In recent years the commission has hired a part time employee to walk the properties in an effort to maintain marked trails.
If the purchase is approved by voters, the Old Lyme Land Trust, according to Kiernan, has agreed to blaze and maintain trails connecting the Lay Preserve to the current McCulloch Farm trail system which will need some expansion for the Open Space Commission. It is likely that two Land Trust volunteers will be assigned to the cross-town trails in McCulloch in order to take care of their maintenance.
“Eventually, the commission envisions three public trails and will explore other potential public uses, consistent with preserving the property’s natural state,” according to a press release by the Open Space Commission in April.
A Nature Conservancy easement has protected the McCulloch Farm property since 1999. “The easement preserves the conservation value but still allows the private land-owner the use and enjoyment of the land,” Gumbart said. “There are some trails on the property already, so the infrastructure won’t change too much with the town’s acquisition.” Although the property was not in danger of development, the existing easement did not allow for public access to McCulloch Farm.
Since the easement will remain on the property, the Nature Conservancy will continue to monitor and assess the land yearly in order to make sure it is being managed and maintained properly, but the acquisition will allow for hikers, bikers and horseback riders to access the land and perhaps for more children to play outdoors.
“The kids in those days before electronic games spent a lot of time outside and there were very few restrictions. For example, I played in the waterfalls at Devil’s Hopyard. Now its all off limits. We used to swim from the Dam at Rogers Lake, now it’s all shut off,” McCulloch said in a 2010 interview at Old Lyme’s senior center. “Kids really did an awful lot outside, and because parents weren’t scared for them, kids were allowed to do a lot of things which now parents won’t let them do, because they’re concerned.”
A vote on the purchase will be held at the annual town budget meeting, 7:30 p.m. on May 20th at the Old Lyme Memorial Town Hall.