Pathfinders Purchases Deer Lake for $4.75M

By Clark Judge

In what was described as “a triumph of hope over experience,” Deer Lake has been saved.

After months of negotiations, the 255-acre property was sold Friday by the Connecticut Yankee Council (CYC) of the Boy Scouts to Pathfinders, Inc., a local nonprofit dedicated to preserving it as open space.

The cost was $4.75 million, with $3 million in donations and the remainder in loans, and was announced at a morning news conference at Deer Lake.

“This,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, “is a profoundly important moment.”

The site of Friday’s briefing was the same as a Jan. 27 news conference, called by Pathfinders to draw attention to the Boys Scouts’ proposed sale of the property. In fact, many of the guest speakers who stood outside the Deer Lake dining hall last winter returned eight months later.

Blumenthal was there. So were Killingworth First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski, state Sen. Christine Cohen and state Rep. Christine Goupil. Even Bill Lucey, the Long Island Soundkeeper at Save the Sound, was back.

But that is where the similarities end.

In January, it was a frigid, blustery afternoon, with temperatures in the low 30s. This time, it was a spectacular sunlit morning in the low-to-mid 60s. Then, the message was as cold as the weather: Save Deer Lake … or else. This time, it was a joyous celebration, with Pathfinders’ board members high-fiving each other upon arrival.

And why not? When they drove into the camp Friday morning, they passed under the familiar “Deer Lake Scout Reservation” sign that hung across its entrance on Paper Mill Road. Only this time they saw something different. The sign had been sawed in half to read “Deer Lake.”

That made it official: The property had been saved.

Conn. Attorney General William Tong, Pathfinders Board President Ted Langevin, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, state Senator Christine Cohen, Save the Sound's Bill Lucey, state Representative Christine Goupil, Killingworth First Selectwoman Nancy Gorski.

Afterward, members of Pathfinders passed out slices of cake, with icing that read “Thank you to Pathfinders and all of the many volunteers and donors who together made it happen – You did it! You SAVED DEER LAKE!!!” Then they toasted the Save Deer Lake campaign with champagne.

“This wasn’t just a come-from-behind victory for Deer Lake,” said state Atty. Gen. William Tong, who was instrumental in making the deal happen. “This was a Hail Mary.”

That may be an understatement.

It was exactly one year ago that the CYC listed Deer Lake Scout Reservation for sale, and Mark and Patty Clifton – who live on the property, oversee it and operate the annual Deer Lake summer camp – desperately reached out to a handful of individuals to plot a course to save the property.

Among those present was Ted Langevin who, as president of Pathfinders, would become the central figure in the group’s bid to overcome a $4.625 offer from a private developer. But that would take months in what Sen. Cohen called a “rollercoaster” of talks with the CYC, and success seemed improbable when Blumenthal addressed reporters in January.

“Only months ago,” he said Friday, “we were despairing. The triumph of hope over experience here has worked wonders.”

There was little hope then, and less one month later when the CYC announced a tentative deal with Fortitude Capital LLC, a private developer, for $4.625 million. But in an extraordinary move, the Scouts announced that they would entertain proposals exceeding that offer until March 31 – a deadline that, thanks to an intervention by Tong, was postponed to May 1.

That’s when Pathfinders entered the picture.

Until then, it supported an effort by the Trust for Public Land, another nonprofit, to preserve Deer Lake as open space. But when its offer of $2.4 million, based on an appraisal of $2-2.4 million for the property, was rebuffed by the CYC, Pathfinders made a difficult decision: It would engage in an ambitious fundraising campaign to raise enough capital to eclipse Fortitude’s offer.

Result: In six weeks, it accumulated over $3 million from donors. And with time and $1.8 million in loans from two sources, it reached $4.75 million – enough to satisfy the CYC, which closed the deal Friday morning.

That’s the good news. The sobering message, however, is that nearly $2 million in mortgages must be repaid for Pathfinders to own the property outright, and maybe that happens with state or local assistance, Nobody is sure. What is certain is that Pathfinders just took a giant step toward a goal that once appeared unreachable.

A.G. Tong with Sen. Blumenthal

“This has meaning and resonance well beyond the 255 acres of Deer Lake,” said Blumenthal. “It shows that we are turning the corner. We are reversing the tide on development in America. You may think that sounds like an exaggeration, but, in my view, this come-from-behind success really shows how to do it. And how to do it right.

“We have an obligation to be stewards of places like this one and to make sure that we fulfill our part of the bargain -- which is to do no harm and, in fact, to enhance, rather than destroy. Nothing wrong with development in the right places. People need houses. But not here.”

That message was echoed by donors, not just throughout Killingworth but across the state and country.

Over 1,300 persons contributed to the Save Deer Lake campaign, with contributions from 87 Connecticut towns, 34 states and four countries. Moreover, the Deer Lake story gained national attention, with the Associated Press, USA Today, Washington Post, and National Public Radio among media outlets that carried the story.

So did statewide TV, with WFSB, WTNH, Fox61 and WVIT joining the coverage.

Once upon a time, it seemed unfathomable that a grassroots campaign to Save Deer Lake could be successful. Then Friday happened.

“There is a time and a place for development,” said Tong. “This is not it. That’s obvious by walking around here. This is one of the things that defines who we are as a state. It is was is great about Connecticut and our world. It is because of that it is so worth fighting for. I am just so proud to join all of these fighters and advocates who made it happen.”