Deal near to preserve Deer Lake in Killingworth as open space
It has taken longer and cost more than its buyers would have liked, but it now appears that the Deer Lake Boy Scout Reservation in Killingworth, a scenic 255-acre woodland that one environmentalist called an “incredible geological wonder,” will be maintained as open space and protected from development.
The Boy Scouts’ Connecticut Yankee Council, which owns the land, is in the final stage of negotiations to sell the land for $4.75 million to Pathfinders, Inc., a local nonprofit that has run camping programs at Deer Lake for many years under a lease agreement with the Scouts.
“We think we are very close,” said Ted Langevin, president of Pathfinders. The Scouts did not comment, but in a July 25 filing in a lawsuit involving the property, the Scouts’ lawyers asserted that the “contract for the sale of the Deer Lake property to Pathfinders is near completion.”
The lawsuit, which involved a bird sanctuary on the land, might have held up the sale, but it was settled and withdrawn on Monday.
If the sale proceeds as expected, Pathfinders plans to continue its camping programs and otherwise protect the land from development, said Langevin.
The sale would end a months-long controversy that has drawn national attention and attracted considerable support for preservation of the property. The “Save Deer Lake” Facebook page has attracted almost 2,300 followers, and more than 1,300 donors have contributed money to preserve the site.
“They want it saved,” said Langevin.
To preserve the open space, Pathfinders had to top an offer that looked for a time like it would carry the day. In the spring, the Scouts’ Connecticut Yankee Council announced it was selling the land for $4.62 million to a major real estate developer, Margaret Streicker, who is also a board member of the council.
This occasioned considerable pushback. Conservationists were outraged that a supposedly conservation-oriented nonprofit would sell pristine open space to a developer. David Stephenson of Madison filed a lawsuit to protect a bird sanctuary on the property.
Attorney General William Tong’s office began a probe of the nascent deal, focused on conflict of interest and charitable fund-raising statutes.
Pathfinders began a “Save Deer Lake” campaign in the hope of raising enough money to top Streicker’s offer. They have done so, and Streicker said in a telephone interview last month that she would not increase her offer.
For the Council, which represents Scouts in New Haven, Fairfield and part of Hartford counties, the sale of Deer Lake helps solve one of two major challenges facing the organization.
For one, it had more land and camps than it needed, because membership had declined significantly. Though he would not comment for this story, Council CEO Mark Krauss told an interviewer in January that when the council was formed from the merger of two earlier councils 21 years ago, there were more than 20,000 active scouts, but that the number had declined to more than 5,000 by the end of the last decade.
This reflects a national trend: the Associated Press reported that national Boy Scout membership has dropped from more than 4 million in the 1970s to well under 1 million today (Girl Scout membership has dropped precipitously as well).
The council then owned four major camps, a smaller camp, an office building in Milford and several random and mostly undeveloped pieces of property that had been given to them over the years. Krauss told the interviewer that camps were expensive to run and that the council could get by with two of them.
The second issue, only tangentially related to the first, was that the Boy Scouts of America (now rebranded as Scouts BSA) filed for bankruptcy protection in February of 2020, facing thousands of sexual abuse claims from former scouts. (The proposed settlement, $2.7 billion for some 82,000 claims, is working its way through U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware). The 251 local councils will have to bear some of the fiscal burden of the settlement, which has triggered a sell-off of Scout properties across the country.
Keep Deer Lake
The Connecticut Yankee Council created a property and planning task force in 2020 to evaluate its properties and make recommendations both for right-sizing and to assess “potential liquidity and other options” that could be pursued in connection with the bankruptcy.
The task force worked for several months and produced an 11-page report. It recommended that the council unload the small properties and divest its Milford office building and Camp Pomperaug in Union, which is a considerable distance from the council’s boundaries. As for Deer Lake, the task force recommended that “operations continue as is,” and that a five-year plan be developed for the property. In other words, don’t sell it. The council’s board of directors accepted the report.
Thus it came as a surprise to task force members last fall when Deer Lake was suddenly on the market.
“I was shocked,” said one task force member who asked not to be named.
It’s not clear how or why the council leadership overrode the task force recommendation, though one source said the board of directors authorized the council’s leadership team to take the action. None would comment; Krauss referred questions to a council spokesman who said the council officials had agreed not to speak to the media while negotiations were in progress. The spokesman asked not to be identified by name.
In any event, three potential buyers for Deer Lake emerged. One was the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which has helped protect more than 8,000 acres of open space in the state. The Trust appraised the property and bid $2.4 million early this year. The Trust’s effort was supported by the town, other conservation groups and the Pathfinders.
The offer was rejected when, seemingly out of nowhere, came Striecker with the much higher bid, of $4.62 million. She is a Connecticut resident who heads New York-based Fortitude Capital LLC, a real estate investment firm. She unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Rosa DeLauro for the state’s 3rd Congressional District seat in 2020.
Streicker said she was initially looking at another Scout property but was asked if she was interested in Deer Lake. She was.
The Trust for Public Land’s policy is not to pay more than the appraised value of land in its present state. That is also the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s open space acquisition policy, said then-gubernatorial spokesman Max Reiss. But private investors have no such limitation, they can project what they think land might be worth when developed and bid accordingly. Striecker said she did a “commercial assessment” of the Deer Lake property to reach her $4.62 million bid.
The Council agreed to sell it to her but gave Pathfinders, who stepped in when the Trust’s offer was rejected, more time to match the offer. The council turned down an offer of $4.3 million from Pathfinders in April, but negotiations continued. They are expected to conclude with the $4.75 million agreement.
To meet its obligation to the bankruptcy settlement, the council will sign over Camp Pomperaug to the national organization and pay the remainder from its endowment, the spokesman said.
David Stephenson’s lawsuit, filed in Superior Court on April 25, claimed that in 1985, New Haven ornithologist and philanthropist Richard L. English donated money to the Connecticut Yankee Council to establish the Richard English Bird Sanctuary at Deer Lake and that the council established the sanctuary.
The suit claimed that if the land were sold to a developer, there would be a “reasonable likelihood” that the sanctuary would be “discontinued.” The suit asked for legal protection of the land.
Lawyers for the council filed a counterclaim, asserting that Stephenson’s lawsuit caused economic damage to the Scout organization and asking for compensatory damages from Stephenson.
Both the claim and counterclaim have been released, according to Stephenson’s lawyer Keith R. Ainsworth as well as a Scouts spokesman. Ainsworth said with the property going to Pathfinders rather than a developer, Stephenson feels his mission will be accomplished.
It’s not certain how the impending sale will affect the inquiry by Attorney General Tong. His office declined to comment this week.
Though the question may now be moot, it is also not clear what Streicker intended to do with the land if she were the buyer. She had a meeting in the spring with Killingworth First Selectman Nancy Gorski, who said Streicker floated the idea of affordable housing for the site.
Streicker said that was not an actual proposal, more a statement of what zoning allowed. The area is in a RR zone, which allows single-family housing. But a zoning review by the town said subdivision development at the site would be constrained by lack of access to much of the land.
Gorski also said the site is not close to jobs, transit or the town center, and thus not optimal for affordable housing.
Streicker stressed that she didn’t have a plan for the property. She called the land a “jewel” and said her idea was to “do something good for the community and give the Boy Scouts solvency and liquidity they need to keep serving their mission.”
She said her involvement as a board member has been nearly nonexistent.
Few would disagree with Streicker’s positive characterization of the Deer Lake property. It consists of forests, meadows, the long lake and unusual rock formations including cliffs and caves, caves being fairly rare in Connecticut.
The Nature Conservancy of Connecticut has identified Deer Lake as part of a network of ecosystems and landscapes that are a “high priority for preservation,” said Shelley Green, the group’s director of conservation programs.
Such wooded areas help clean air and water, store carbon in plants and soil, protect communities from extreme storms and flooding and provide “refuges, migration corridors or resilient habitats for plants and animals adapting to a warming world,” she said. “Protecting these resilient lands is key to a future where both people and nature thrive.”
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others have pointed out, fragmentation — breaking off into small pieces — is a constant threat to forests in the Eastern U.S. One of Deer Lake’s advantages is that it is part of a major forested region that includes Chatfield Hollow State Park and the 17,000 acre Cockaponset State Forest.
This swath is actually getting larger. The state just awarded the Madison Land Conservation Trust a $585,000 grant to purchase a 30-acre tract called Birch Branch Meadow, which is in the next town and, like much of Deer Lake, in the Hammonasset River watershed. Added to the woodlands to the north, the state gets a “great greenway zone,” said Ben Diebold, president of the Madison trust.
Langevin said if Pathfinders acquires the property it will honor Stephenson’s wish to preserve the bird sanctuary.
This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.