Murwin Johnson claps his hands and the ewes come running up a hill at
the sheep farm he's lived on for five decades.
blats pierce the silence of this tranquil place, 50 acres of pasture and
woods with vast views of the Connecticut River Valley.
developer had his eye on the land recently, one of only three privately
owned properties of 40 acres or more left in this 12-square-mile town of
nearly 7,000 residents. His plan was to build 20 homes on the site.But
there were the sheep to think about — and the local children. For years,
boys and girls have visited the farm during summer sheep-shearing
demonstrations and in the spring when the lambs are born.
Johnson, 79, who used to work for the state Department of Agriculture,
said no to the developer and the others with dreams of building "trophy
homes" on one of the town's popular landmarks.
Johnson entered into an agreement with the local land trust to restrict
the use of his land, a deal that local officials say is a milestone for
Essex and the Essex Land Trust, the latest land trust to look to
purchasing development rights as a way to preserve farmland.Town leaders
are in favor of spending $150,000 of town funds to assist the land trust
in acquiring the development rights to Johnson's Walnut Street property.
Residents will vote on the $150,000 expenditure Wednesday.
Selectman Phil Miller said that although the town and the land trust
have worked together for years to preserve open space, this deal is the
first time the town has been involved in the purchase of development
rights for a local farm.
purchase of development rights, a form of conservation easement or
restriction, has been used by the state since the 1970s to preserve
farmland and open space. But as the amount of farmland in the state
shrinks, land trusts and municipalities are turning to acquiring
development rights as a way to save what is left of the ever-dwindling
number of farms in Connecticut.
recently as last month, the town of Suffield purchased development
rights to two local farms. Other towns that have looked to conservation
easements to protect farmland include Pomfret, Ashford, Woodstock,
Shelton, Simsbury, South Windsor, Ridgefield and Easton, said Jay Dippel
of the state Department of Agriculture's farmland preservation division.
participates in deals involving farms that meet certain qualifications.
Other agreements are made between towns and land trusts. Some
municipalities buy the development rights outright and other easements
new about this is that towns and local land trusts are using
agricultural easements for the first time," said Henry Talmage,
executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust, a private
statewide land trust. "These easements are unique because the farmer can
still farm on the land and maintain it, but he no longer has the
development rights to it. And regardless of how many times the property
is sold, the restriction lives on."
farm has long been on the radar of Essex officials and local
preservationists who feared losing the land to development. The farm was
identified in a 2005 town conservation and development plan as a
property that should be preserved.
"He has a
wonderful farm and he's done a lot of work there," said Dippel, whose
department did not take part in the deal but had visited the farm. "He's
got his sweat and blood and life there and it's important for him to
preserve it. It's wonderful that Essex is working to preserve the few
farms remaining there."
negotiations have not been easy. Some say the talks lasted five years.
Others say 10. William Grover, president of the nonprofit Essex Land
Trust, called the deal "the toughest challenge that we've faced yet as a
land trust." The 40-year-old group has holdings of more than 400 acres.
said rural towns struggling to make their budgets and looking to
preserve farmland often lack the resources needed to acquire the land.
these deals get pulled off, it really is a time for celebration,"
looking for remedies often turn to regional and local land trusts.
Dippel said Connecticut has more than 100 land trusts, the highest
number in the nation.
are starting to plan more," Dippel said. "It's not about preserving
everything at any cost. It's about planning for their services and where
they have their support systems. There's more and more thought about it
on a local level."
Preserving Johnson's farm would add to open space acreage in Essex,
which Miller said amounts to a little over 12 percent. He said reaching
the state open space preservation goal of 20 percent for each
municipality by 2023 is "ambitious," particularly without state forest
or water company land to look to. The town is already looking at
preserving two other farms in town, totaling about 120 acres, he said.
agreement, the land trust would pay Johnson the market value of the
development rights of the farm, which have been appraised at $780,000.
Johnson also would receive tax breaks on the property, which is
appraised at more than $1 million, according to minutes from a recent
trust would have right of first refusal to buy the farm if the Johnsons
decide to sell the land.
cost of the development rights is estimated at $850,000, which includes
legal fees and other expenses.
some have complained that the Johnson farm deal would keep the land
private, those who support using the $150,000 say keeping the land as
farm land or open space would spare Essex the extra burden they say more
residences would likely bring to the town's services, schools and
are now taking a look at it from a fiscal point of view. They don't want
to build that new $90 million middle school," Talmage said.
growing interest in locally grown food has also prompted townsto take
another look at their farms as a viable food source for the community.
this kind of awakening in the towns, largely driven by the local food
movement," Talmage said. "There's a whole new group of people interested
in farmland preservation that have never been at the table before."
raise money for purchase, Johnson deeded 6 acres in the southern area of
his property to the Essex Land Trust, which plans to sell the property
as two building lots.
said he isn't worried about those lots intruding on his sanctuary, where
the only regular noise comes from the faint whistle of the distant Essex
Steam Train. These days, as Johnson tends his acres and sheep, he stops
often to reflect on the land's beauty with his wife, Polly, as they sit
on a bench underneath two shade trees.
wanted this to be around for the next generation of kids," Johnson said.
The Hartford Courant