Westport protects 50 acres of Old Harbor woodlands


Hikers will soon have new woods to explore in Westport thanks to the preservation of 50 acres adjoining the 76-acre Old Harbor Wildlife Refuge.

The Board of Selectmen voted approval last Monday of conservation restrictions on the 34-acre Bryan property and 16-acre Jansen property (total 50 acres). That brings the total contiguous protected land at Old Harbor Wildlife Refuge to 137 acres. Under the restriction agreement, the families will continue to own the land but it now is protected from development.

"It is wonderful woodlands, a great place to walk," said Chris Detweller of the Trustees for Reservations. There are already trails there along old wood paths and connectors will be cut to link to other trails within the refuge. He said there are no buildings on the land.

He said the properties will be accessible from the wildlife refuge parking lot on Old Harbor Road although connecting access trails still need to be cleared.

The eventual unanimous vote to approve the restriction was not without debate. When the issue arose earlier, Selectmen put off a decision after Antone Vieira and R. Michael Sullivan urged that the restriction agreements that had been drawn up by the state should be reviewed by the town's attorney to make sure they are in Westport's best interest.

Mr. Vieira has said that he is bothered by the fact that a considerable amount of Westport land has received such protection and has therefore been removed from the town tax rolls. And Mr. Sullivan said he was uncomfortable that the town is bound by restriction deed language over which it has no say.

After a vote, with Steven Ouellette opposed, the matter was sent to the town's lawyer who, after review, offered the opinion that the Selectmen approve the restriction as written.

But last Monday, Mr. Vieira repeated his concern about the loss of tax revenue and distributed documents that he said describe alternative land preservation methods.  That prompted objections from selectman Craig Dutra who said that such materials should have been distributed early enough for selectmen to read them.

Mr. Vieira argued said that there is now $21 million worth of property under restriction in town and that the amount has doubled in the past decade.

Mr. Ouellette countered that land protected as open space or farmland is actually less costly to taxpayers than developed land since it requires few services such as police, school and roadwork.

Eventually the selectmen approved the restrictions in a unanimous vote.

The agreement continues a process of protecting Bryan family land that has gradually built the Old Harbor Refuge to what will now be 137 acres.

Patience and Burton Bryan  donated the original parcel in 1975 and several subsequent pieces. Now their son Robert Bryan and daughter Sarah Jansen have provided the protective restrictions to these 50 additional acres.

This protection "achieves many conservation benefits as well as furthering multiple goals of Westport’s most recently completed Open Space and Recreation Plan.  Protection of these lands furthers the protection of the water quality and natural resources of Westport’s rivers and streams, groundwater, wetlands, wildlife habitats and coastal areas," said Margaret Stevens, executive director of the Westport Land Conservation Trust, a partner in the effort.

She added that the restriction aids in"protection of the scenic and natural character of the West Branch of the Westport River’s watershed and enhancing the habitat and open space value of the properties … Finally, protection of the properties provides for public access by the granting of trail easements across portions of both properties.

Property owner Robert Bryan wrote in a letter to Selectmen that, "It is our hope that together we will be able to preserve a significant portion of both parcels for future generations of Westporters.

Stone walls there are evidence that the land was once famed, Mr. Bryan said, but it had long since grown over into woodlands by the time his family took it over a half century ago. His father harvested firewood there and "since 1982 the forest has been a certified Tree Farm and enrolled in Chapter 61 under an active, professional forest management program. In the early ‘80s I did an improvement thinning to favor the best quality trees, and since then we have had two commercial timber harvests that provided oak logs to local sawmills and firewood to heat the homes of area residents." Because it was a tree farm, its tax value to Westport was already diminished.

"When I grew up in Westport in the 1960’s there was an abundance of open land open to walking, hunting, or just enjoyment of the woods. Now it seems that houselots and 'Posted' signs have taken up much of the landscape, and open places for people to enjoy and wildlife to inhabit are dwindling.

"It is very important to our family to protect the natural habitats, open space, and clean water provided by these two woodlots. The chorus of forest birds on a June morning, the flash of an antler in the low light of December, and a tricking stream running through moss-covered rocks are of immeasurable and irreplaceable value," Mr. Bryan concluded.



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