Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
State buys 449 acres in Vernon for preservation

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
June 22, 2012

VERNON — The state has acquired 449 acres in town from the Mason family for open space and the preservation of a sensitive watershed, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said today.

"The land we are protecting today is one of the largest and most significant open space preservations in Connecticut history," DEEP Commissioner Daniel C. Esty said. The property, now known as the Tankerhoosen Wildlife Management Area, "supports high densities of catchable size brown and brook trout in the Tankerhoosen River and many species of birds, invertebrates, and reptiles in need of protection," Esty said.

The parcel is adjacent to and upstream of the 282-acre Belding Wildlife Management Area, donated to the state by Max Belding in 1981, and abuts sections of Reservoir Road, Baker Road, Fish and Game Road, and Brandy Hill Road.

"We're very, very pleased," Open Space Task Force Chairwoman Ann Letendre said. "That parcel was one of our top priorities on the Vernon open space plan," Letendre said. The acquisition is critical for protection of the Tankerhoosen's headwaters, Letendre said.

The task force sees the acquisition as an expansion of the Belding wildlife management area, "providing additional opportunity for an outdoor experience for Vernon residents and others in the state," she added.

Esty said the acquisition doubles the size of the local Wild Trout Management Area and adds to a corridor of environmental protection that includes Belding, Valley Falls Park, Bolton Notch State Park, and Northern Connecticut Land Trust property.

The state purchased the property from Tancanhoosen LLC, comprised of 18 members of the extended Mason family, for $2,965,000, funded entirely through the state's Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Program, through which a total of 254,674 acres has been purchased for about $375 million to date.

The purchase is another step toward the state's open space goal of protecting 21 percent of Connecticut's land — 673,210 acres — by the year 2023, with 493,452 acres, or 73 percent of that goal, having been acquired so far.

Tom Mason, 72, who lives with his wife, Susan, on Reservoir Road in a home built in the 1780s, is one of the managing members of Tancanhoosen, LLC.

While many of his family members are now scattered throughout the country, Mason said the majority voted to sell the property to the state for preservation in order to fulfill a dream held by his grandfather, Lebbeus Bissell, an insurance agent who lived in the Rockville section of town.

Bissell and friend Frederick Belding, Max Belding's father, "bought up a number of pieces of property back in the 1920s, which included the property from Route 30 all the way out to Valley Falls," Mason said. "Some of it was small farms ... the piece here we're talking about today was the Walker family home," a family of farmers for whom Walker Reservoir is named.

Bissell and Belding used the properties for year-round family recreation, stocking the river with trout and the forests with pheasants and partridge, Mason said.

They kept three hunting and fishing cabins along the brook, maintained bank-side paths, cross-country ski trails, lumbered where necessary, and hiked throughout the property, Mason said. His grandfather also raised field trial dogs in the barns across the street from where he now lives, he added.

His father, John Mason, served in the Navy in the Pacific theater in World War II and moved the family to California during the war but returned to Vernon around 1948 to work at the Bissell insurance company, which still exists.

Mason said he went to first grade in Rockville and later traveled, but after serving in the Navy himself, he also returned to work in insurance before retiring and helping to run the family land trust.

"We're kind of the conduit, I think, for the care and the use and enjoyment of it. It has been passed along down through a few generations here, but in the end, we think that this is the right way to preserve it, and the practical way, in its natural state," Mason said.

When a watershed reaches a 10 percent impervious surface cover — meaning paved areas such as parking lots — trout and other environmentally sensitive species that require cold-water habitats begin to disappear, according to the DEEP. The drainage basins around the Tankerhoosen within the Mason and Belding properties currently have around 6 percent impervious surface cover, so development would likely reduce or eliminate sensitive and threatened species.

Over the years, Mason said, developers have inquired about constructing a variety of building projects on the property, "but we've not been interested in it."

There are 63 species of greatest conservation need on the Belding and Mason properties — such as the woodland jumping mouse, great blue heron, eastern box turtle, gray tree frog, spotted salamander, brook trout, and eastern pearl-shell mussel.

"I think it's an asset to everybody here," Mason said. "That was the dream of these two guys that originally bought it. It was time to sort of complete the circle here, and I think we have, and now the DEEP hopefully will continue to see their dream realized."

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