The first article in this three part series, titled, Valley Forge Forever Gone documented what led to the creation of the Saugatuck Reservoir and how the residents of the village of Valley Forge fought, but lost their town when the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company flooded it for the creation of the reservoir.
In those days, and up until President Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water act in 1986, mandating filtration plants, large tracts of land were needed as buffers to protect the water supply. Though debatable, by many, the powers to be believed that the new technology had shown that filtration plants would do an even better job than buffers did to remove pollutants. That, of course, meant the large amounts of land owned by the Aquarion-owned Bridgeport Hydraulic Company were no longer needed, but were, in fact, money in the bank, because building treatment plants is enormously expensive.
With land prices soaring in the 1990s everywhere in Fairfield County and particularly in Weston and Easton, developers were sure to be eyeing all possible parcels of land for sale. Because Connecticut law requires that water companies provide the right of first refusal to agencies that preserve land as open space, Bridgeport Hydraulic Company's CEO, at the time, Jack McGregor called the then director of the Aspetuck Land Trust, Bruce LePage, and floated the idea of selling 400 acres to the Trust.
Things started to move after that meeting when two Easton open space activists were contacted. Four hundred acres may seem like a lot to most people, but not to Gail Bromer, Easton Open Space Task Force, chair. or the president of the Citizens for Easton, Princie Falkenhagen. Their attitude was why go for less when the entire Trout Brook Valley would be an even better deal.
When the people of Easton were approached about funding the 700+ acres of TBV for open space, they declined, saying it was too much of a financial burden for them to take. The Aspetuck Land Trust whose aim is to preserve land in Easton, Weston, Fairfield and Westport and the Open Space Task Force explored every other avenue they could to find funding, without luck. What now? Word got around that BHC was interest in selling Four Corners, a well-known area of 27.8 acres, in Easton, whose corners are Route 58 and Route 136. All effort then was put toward the purchase of Four Corners. Now, Easton people, several non-profits and other groups were determined to do whatever could be done to purchase that land.
James Lomuscio, in his book Village of the Dammed, wrote that while attention was on the sale of Four Corners, “Aquarion had been in negotiations with National Fairways, Inc., a golf course management company, and by 1997 they were close to an agreement.” The details were quite something. Trout Brook Valley was to become a gated subdivision of 103 houses with a 200-acre golf course and a luxury clubhouse to the tune of a membership fee of $100,000. That prospect outraged the people of Easton and the neighboring communities. If that were not enough, Bridgeport Hydraulic Company announced as a gesture of good neighborliness, they would donate the 27.8 acres of Four Corners to the Aspetuck Land Trust which according to Bruce LePage was worth about $250,000.
While there were literally hundreds who were active in the fight to preserve Trout Brook Valley, certain people do stand out not because they did more or cared more, but rather because they had for one reason or another, influence that enabled them to get things moving.
When asked if she ever lost faith, Gail Bromer said that it was such a unique opportunity it was hardly possible to lose faith. She said, “It was as though all the stars were aligned, ” noting that Governor Rowland wanted to preserve open space. Princie Falkenhagen said that Rowland was running for re-election and wanted Fairfield County in his pocket, as it were. He knew there was great support in the county for open space and had already set a goal of 20% of Connecticut ‘s open space to be preserved by 2020. In addition, the legislature was in favor of it. And what was particularly unique was that the land was smack in the center of acres and acres of open space.
The best happens when things grow from the bottom up, and that is what began to happen. Local Westport resident and seasoned journalist James Lomusicio wrote an article in the Connecticut section of the August 31, 1997 Sunday NYTimes, titled, Pricey Houses; golf in Easton's Future . It read in part,
“But Gail Bromer, a conservation commission member who is chairwoman of the town's open space committee says any taxes raised would be offset by a drain on town services, including the need for more police officers and for a new school. Ms. Bromer also does not want to see the town's rural character dramatically changed.”
Princie Falkenhagen said that the developer then countered that claim by contacting every resident in Easton to explain that people who would live in the luxury homes would send their children to private school and not to the Easton's schools; hence, instead of increasing taxes, the taxes gained would help pay to build the much needed new school that was in the planning stage.
The residents of Easton were taken in by the developer, and Falkenhagen was very surprised to learn she did not have “the pulse of her own town.” Salesmen with a gift of gab and a clever line have been around since the days of the snake oil salesmen who toured the country side selling elixirs and potions of all kinds, even ones that supposedly included the oils from snakes.
Hearing one's taxes will be reduced can cloud the minds of the wisest of people. Eyes glaze over at the thought of a penny more in taxes. Therefore, if ever there was a discouraging time, that was a very low point, but it was not a time to give up. It was a time to refuel. And refuel they did.
The Coalition to Preserve Trout Brook went into full gear and things began to happen. The news about National Fairways' plan to develop one of the most beautiful spots on this planet spread beyond Fairfield County and even beyond the state. As mentioned earlier, even Governor John Rowland was on board. The Connecticut Fund for the Environment jumped on the bandwagon. The environment was not going to lose. Lawns everywhere sprouted signs. “ Trout Brook Valley, Forever Yours. Or Forever Gone.”
Then just before Christmas, at the regular Easton Planning and Zoning Commission, something fantastic and unexpected happened. Into that meeting came Melissa (Lissy) Newman and Nell Newman along with their father. Lissy sought out Princie Falkenhagen, and introduced her to her father, Paul Newman who asked what he could do. No question could have been easier to answer and no answer was more to the point. “Money,” was all she said. Newman responded saying he would give a half million dollars over a 5 year period.
Obviously, Newman's offer hit the papers and that set the fund-raising effort into full swing. Money poured in from almost every state in the union. But the battle was not over, nor was Newman's participation. He gave more than money. He and his daughter Lissy and Weston resident James Naughton went to Hartford to request aid from the state. Newman also went to his Weston neighbor and good friend, Robert Redford who made an undisclosed donation and wrote a letter that appeared in the Westport News , on January 30, 1998. The full text of the letter appears in James Lomuscio's book, Village of the Dammed. He had just begun as editor of the Westport News at the time when the Redford letter was submitted.
Newman and Redford were more than celebrities. They each did more than write checks. As fine artisans in their profession they gained the respect of the movie public, and their wealth allowed them to make life better for others by the various projects and foundations they started, whether for young actors, directors and writers or for children with terminal disease. But in the end, even the celebrities couldn't have helped without the thousands of others who wrote letters, did fund raising, knocked on doors, spoke to legislators, encouraged others to become involved, held informational gatherings and did the mailings and stamped the letters. If any one ever doubts the power of the people, one need only see how National Fairways Inc., with their golf courses and imperious greens could not beat real grass roots.
Both individuals and organizations donated money and help in a myriad of ways. An art auction was held and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward donated proceeds from their play “Love Letters” to the cause. The Nature Conservancy gave a bridge loan to the Aspetuck Land Trust; the Department of Public Utility Control gave its approval for the sale, State legislators put their shoulders to the wheel to get state funding. There was support from the DEP, and the local Nature Conservancy .
Bruce Le Page, director of the Aspetuck Land Trust during that period worked as tirelessly to acquire TBV as he did for many other parcels . Board member, Tom Talamini called LePage, “Mr. Open Space” not only because he was able to increase the amount of open space in this region, but that he grew the land trust organization.
“When he took over the reins of the trust in 1993, it was a small organization with 214 members managing a little over 200 acres of open space in Easton, Weston, Fairfield and Westport,” said Mr. Talamini. “He has been, without a doubt, the driving force behind ALT.”
In the end, the Town of Weston voted to preserve the 45 acres of Trout Brook Valley located in Weston for $845,000. The Aspetuck Land Trust was the only organization that qualified to preserve the 685 acres located in Easton which cost $11.3 million. The State of Connecticut provided $6 million towards the purchase. The Aspetuck Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy raised the remaining $5.3 million from private sources. As a final gesture, The Bridgeport Hydraulic Company donated the 28 acre 4 corner parcel at the corner of Route 58 and 136, and another 90 acres in Easton.
The money was the bottom line, and it came from the smallest of donations to the largest. The late Paul Newman was a catalyst and he inspired many more, even a little girl who gave a few dollars of her Christmas money.
Aspetuck Land Trust Inc. is a member supported, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving open space in Easton, Fairfield, Weston and Westport. The Land Trust maintains 42 trailed preserves on 1,700 acres.