Lease ‘Guarantee’ for Horse Riding on McCulloch Open Space Approved after Contentious Debate 

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OLD LYME – After lengthy debate over the town’s potential liability and other issues, the Open Space Commission on Wednesday approved a long-term lease that would allow horses to be ridden on the 312-acre McCulloch Family open-space property. 

The lease would allow up to 12 horses at a time on the site off Whippoorwil Road in exchange for a $2,400 annual payment into the town’s general fund by the Tevis family of Essex.

The family plans to buy a portion of the adjacent former McCulloch farm now owned by relatives in the Vasiloff family. 

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Members of the public would be allowed to ride horses on the property, which the town bought for $600,000 in 2019. 

The Tevis’ also would pay for informational signs marking trails and parking, and would be responsible for cleaning up manure.

The 25-year lease, with an option to extend it by two more 25-year terms, must now be voted on by the Planning Commission, the Board of Selectmen and by residents at a town meeting. 

Horses, especially Morgans, were an integral part of the farm for more than 80 years. 

The animals are not now prohibited on the property, but commission co-chair Amanda Blair said the lease would “guarantee” their use there. 

“This is an opportunity for us to put back something that was on that land,”  Blair said in urging the board to approve the lease. “That was the Vasiloff family Morgan farm that they opened to the public occasionally. So it’s kind of going back to its original use and it’s merging some of our goals in open space but taking a lot of the burden of maintenance off the town.” 

The Tevis family also would be required to secure a $5 million liability insurance policy against personal injury and property damage.  

Commission member Gary Gregory questioned whether a lease would open the town up to even more expensive liability in the event a rider is injured or killed. 

“We don’t need a lease,” he said. “Once we take money in, anybody on that property can sue the town. Can you imagine if a horse kills one person? Two people? It’s going to be a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. It’s going to be $10 million. It’s a bad deal for the town financially.”

Commission member Claudio Denoya added that he views the lease – which the Tevis family has said is key to them buying the adjacent Vasiloff property – as “supporting the investment of someone else.” 

“From my perspective, all the town of Old Lyme is paying a lot in taxes,” Denoya said.” So I don’t think we need this money. It is essentially nothing.” 

Blair and co-chair Evan Griswold stressed that the lease had been reviewed by the town’s attorneys, and will protect both the town and the Tevis family. 

“We’ve been accused of being sort of anti-public-access, and were increasing public access through this lease,” Griswold said – an apparent reference to ongoing controversy around reviving a dormant Black Hall River boat launch on town open-space property off Buttonball Road that borders Blair’s. “So I think resisting this for the joy of resisting is, frankly, something that I find kind of obnoxious.”

“There’s no joy in resisting,” retorted Gregory, who had challenged Blair throughout the meeting. 

After listening to nearly an hour of the debate, member Andrea Fenton said she believed the arrangement would be a benefit to the town.

“It increases public access and it has been and will continue to be scrutinized as it goes on,” she said. “I think it’s an agreement with a viable owner of the property.” 

Gregory then tried to continue the debate but was cut off by Blair as she called for a vote.

“I think you’ve spoken enough and you will speak through your vote,” she said. 

Griswold, however, said he wanted to hear Gregory out. 

“I do realize we’re getting some gain,” Gregory concluded. “But I think the risk we’re taking far exceeds the gain. By far.”

The lease was eventually approved by a 5-2 vote, with Gregory and Denoya voting against it. 

It is on the agenda of Thursday’s meeting of the Planning Commission.

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Steve Jensen

Steve Jensen was a journalist for 13 years with the Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer of Manchester before becoming a Communications Director for the State of Connecticut. Jensen covers politics and law enforcement for CT Examiner. T: 860 661-6404

steve.jensen@ctexaminer.com