Here is an archetypal but imperiled view in the Litchfield Hills. Drivers heading into East Canaan along Rte 44 enjoy watching the Congregational church spire rising up against the backdrop of Canaan Mountain, and it is one of the very special places in our town to which residents and visitors alike readily respond. The mountainside is largely protected as part of the Housatonic State Forest, but the foreground is a highly developable field with substantial road frontage. It would not take much - a three bedroom home, a parking lot and storefront - to forever alter this quintessential slice of rural New England.
Just up the road to the west of where this picture was taken, eight acres of land were rezoned last year from residential to commercial and Perotti and Sons Plumbing and Heating is now constructing a 170- by 22-foot steel building. According to an article in the Lakeville Journal:
"Longtime residents of the road, and even some who grew up there and moved away, came to the public hearing or submitted letters, urging the preservation of the neighborhood and the scenic beauty of the hillside, with its view of Canaan Mountain. They described Furnace Hill Road as one of the last "real" neighborhoods in Canaan, where generations continue to grow up together. It was also noted as an historic area. While not an official designation, it developed with the great iron age and is closely associated with nearby Beckley Furnace."
Preserving rural character - let alone a viable rural economy - is a challenge in towns like North Canaan and across the Litchfield Hills, where land values have risen dramatically and the children of long-time residents are leaving the area because of a lack of affordability and few job opportunities outside the service sector. At the same time, many second home owners from Metropolitan New York are buying and building here and finding their quality of life dramatically enhanced even with weekly 3 hour drives to Manhattan. Some of these second homes are converting to primary residences, while along the Rte 8 corridor and the southern tier of Litchfield County there are very large residential subdivisions for urban professionals where just a few years ago were only farm fields. Farm land is vanishing faster than any other land cover type in Connecticut. The rate in Litchfield County is over 1,500 acres a year.
The Litchfield Hills Greenprint that I direct has many resources that can help inform land use decisions and assist area land trusts and open space commissions to focus their limited conservation resources to best effect. There is a great on-line interactive map at litchfieldgreenprint.org that we created that allows you to hone in on the distribution of resources of conservation interest that were identified locally and represent local priorities. It depicts explorable layers for water quality, wildlife, working lands, forests and forestry, scenic and recreational attributes, and even the mining locations and landfills that may be appropriate for adaptive reuse in some situations.
Taken all together, the model identifies 35% of the landscape of the Litchfield Hills with conservation significance and without land protection. There is no way that we will see even a large percentage of these 202,000 acres go into protected status, but these are the places that are in play and where choices have to be made concerning how they are conserved and developed.
Growth is not the enemy. Uninformed and unsustainable development is the threat we all face.