About the Early Days of the Branford Land Trust
by Joan Berdick (Spring 2007)
Branford took a huge step in the mid 1950s by forming a Planning and Zoning Commission, adopting regulations and preparing with a consultant plans for the long-range future of the Town. The opening of the Connecticut Turnpike in 1959 made this of greater importance. In the mid 1960s John Sliney, First Selectman, Thorvald Hammer of MIF and John Corbin, president of the New Haven Water Company had serious discussions about the sale of the Supply Ponds property, which the Water Company no longer needed to protect the water supply. Purchase by a developer would mean large number of homes. The newly formed Conservation Commission took the lead in applying for State and Federal grants to make the $264,000 purchase feasible. The Federal share was 50% and the State was 25%. So the Town acquired 250 acres of beautiful land and ponds for $66,000! The laws regarding federal grants limited the use to recreation and education, but did not prevent the Town from selling the land in the future. There was another way to acquire open space in perpetuity. Land Trusts were being formed for that purpose.
With that in mind 13 people became incorporators of the BLT on November 29, 1967. The group included First Selectman John B. Sliney, Town Counsel Frank J. Dumark, Chair of Planning and Zoning Joan Berdick, Chair of Conservation Commission Elizabeth C. Breed, and Chair of Open Space Commission Alis W. McCurdy. (The Conservation Commission was founded by Thorvald Hammer.)
Along with these Town officials were other community leaders: Jeanne H. Hyatt, who worked for the Water Company; Earl P. Carlin, architect; Virginia N. McNeil, in the real estate and insurance business; Ray Plant, Jr., in the insurance business; Stanley D. Josephson, lawyer; McGregor Kilpatrick, lawyer; Declan J. Powers, and Arthur T. Pope. Eugene Swartz was elected as the first BLT President.
The Branford Land Trust by its name expresses an organized concern for “land.” Our mission to preserve open space was the force that motivated our formation in 1967. Equally important, however, is the “people component.” That was best exemplified in the person of Ray Van Wie.
I had the great pleasure of working with Ray when I became president in 1978. Peter Neill, my predecessor, had made the initial contact with Ray, and I had the good fortune to see it come to fruition in our largest land donation to date. In 1978, Ray donated 27.3 acres of beautiful land off Red Rock Road, and he added to it the following year with an adjacent piece of 19.6 acres. The total of 46.9 acres formed the Rose Van Wie Botanical Reserve, in memory of his wife. A beautiful granite piece, donated by the Stony Creek Quarry, marks the property.
Although Ray was well over 90 when we met, we enjoyed a warm friendship until he died at close to 100 years old. His life spanned most of the 20th Century, when Branford grew from a small, mostly rural community to what it is today. With prodding from me, Ray shared that history of the town, but he preferred to talk about the future of our community. He and his wife, in sharing a love for the land, bought many acres when land was cheap, and he was determined that the land be kept in its natural state, so that future generations could derive similar pleasure from it.
The first parcel Ray donated was the nineteenth for the Branford Land Trust. Today we have over 100 parcels. That would please Ray as much as it does all of us.
The Branford Land Trust now owns and has stewardship responsibilities for over 950 acres of land, plus holding conservation easements on over 400 acres. Ray Van Wie’s son Bill and his wife Alice have continued to give more of their property to the Land Trust, so that the initial donation of 27.3 acres on Red Hill Road has grown to be 104.5 acres!
Since 1967 there have been 15 additional presidents of the Land Trust:
1968-1969 – Robert M. Geier
1970-1972 – Harvey C. “Bud” Anderson
1973-1974 – Harry P. Whitmore
1975-1977 – Peter Neill
1978-1981 – Joan Berdick
1982-1984 – Gary Wanerka
1984-1987 – Lauren Brown
1988-1990 – Jeff Clark
1991-1993 – Louise Montagne Resnick
1994-1997 – Peter Borgemeister
1998-2001 – Bill Horne
2002-2005 – Joan Merrick
2006-2008 – Bill Reynolds
2009-201 – Meg Kilgore
2012-Present – Amos Barnes