Trust Exercise

W hen Lauren Brown joined the Branford Land Trust board in 1976, she “never could have even dreamed of” the land trust’s latest purchase, a triangle of farmland on Route 146 near Jarvis Creek. For one, its price tag of $1.75 million would have been unimaginable back then. But Brown has also seen a sea change over the decades in local support for land preservation. Scarce in 1976, it’s strong enough today that the land trust feels confident launching a $600,000 fundraising campaign—in partnership with the Guilford Land Conservation Trust, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and the Seedlings Foundation—to pay off the remaining balance. A $500,000 federal EPA grant and $650,000 from two “angel donor” families in Branford has already covered the rest, and the sale was closed in November.

On a chilly afternoon with intermittent drizzle splattering our car windshields, Brown and I met in an unmarked dirt pull-off (said to have been created ages ago as a school bus turnaround) to walk the land trust’s newest property. Although it was covered with leaves, a wrinkle of trail was discernible running up a hillock into the gray woods. After grasping small boulders and trees for the first steep feet, we reached a short, rolling trail, part of the 30-mile Branford Trail, which circumnavigates the town. Along the way, Brown spotted a papery wasp nest that had fallen into the bushes and split open, its residents long gone. Nearby, oak trees still clung tenaciously to their leaves. The trail cut a break in an old stone wall, then wound down to the edge of a corn field.

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“A flat, open field like this is almost nonexistent in Branford,” Brown noted as we gazed out across the mud, stamped with the regular pattern of tractor tires and punctuated with dry, bent stalks of corn. “So, that was another reason we were so excited to get it.” The seller, farmer James Medlyn, has a lease to continue farming this small piece of his larger farm for several more years. His family has farmed the surrounding land since 1911, but it’s been a working farm for much longer, since 1758, and before that home to the Totoket and Menunkatuck.

From the boundary of the woods, Brown and I watched a New Haven Line train traverse the edge of the field. The mud wasn’t frozen yet, but it had stiffened into a suitable surface for walking, so we headed out toward a stand of tall, brown tufts of marsh grass on the other side. There, from atop an earthen berm protecting the fields from salt water, we could see Jarvis Creek winding through the salt marsh. An osprey platform had been vacated for the season, leaving the remains of a nest behind. The property extends into the marsh, which is home to wildlife including river otters, American bitterns, glossy ibis, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, American kestrels, ospreys, clapper rails, marsh hawks, black bellied plovers and salt marsh sparrows. “The sea level is rising, and that’s a big advantage of saving this” property, rather than allowing it to be developed, Brown says. “This is providing a place for the sea water to go.”

A closer look at a map of Branford and Guilford reveals another important feature of this parcel: It connects trails heading both west into Stony Creek and, following a short walk along Route 146, north into a 535-acre Branford trail system, which links to Guilford’s 1,200-acre Westwoods trails. This not-quite-20-acre parcel may be small in terms of acreage, Brown says, “but in terms of visibility, it’s huge.” Route 146 is a well-traveled road, with a state scenic road designation, so passersby will easily notice the trailhead, which will likely be located across the road from the current Medlyn’s Farm vegetable stand.

Relations between the land trust and Medlyn have sometimes been contentious. In 2015, he filed a lawsuit against the trust, alleging that the 2012 removal of a different berm without the proper permits, on land they already owned, had “[left] the Farm, and other neighboring properties, exposed to the flood surges of Long Island Sound,” according to a court filing. Though a study by scientists with the Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Coastal Adaptation determined the berm removal had little effect on the flooding, the suit was settled with a $16,000 payment by the land trust to Medlyn in 2019, with no admission of liability.

With fences apparently mended, Brown, for one, is optimistic about the future of land preservation in Branford. “It was so different then,” Brown says, referring to her early days at the land trust. “We just had table scraps of properties. A developer would give us a little wetland that he couldn’t use.” Today, the land trust manages 30-plus miles of hiking trails and protects more than 1,400 acres between land owned outright and conservation easements. A trail crew goes out twice a week to conduct storm cleanup, maintain open fields, repair bridges and perform general maintenance. Other volunteers check for encroachment on the trust’s 130 properties.

Another bit of progress came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when the land trust restarted its popular public walks, which had been halted for the pandemic. A “small” crowd of 25 showed up, and soon, the public will have the opportunity to walk this newest protected land as well.

Branford Land Trust
Parcel Location
(203) 483-5263 | [email protected]
www.branfordlandtrust.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Mark Orensteen and provided courtesy of the Branford Land Trust. Images 2-5 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 features Lauren Brown.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts somewhat-weekly content on her YouTube channel, Better Book Clubs.

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