Truly Grassroots

Amid the palatial manors of Round Hill Road, the pale white farmhouse at the Old Mill Road intersection peeks out through a break in the trees, a refugee from a wrinkle in time.

While the dwellings around it rival one another for ornate splendor and stylistic fancy, this plain-looking structure looks more like a holdover from “American Gothic.”

Built sometime in the 1890s, it survived waves of successive development that gobbled all its former neighbors, backcountry farms which defined Greenwich at the end of the nineteenth century. It then survived the massive subdivisions of the Great Estates that replaced them.

Finding another authentic Greenwich farmhouse is tough enough; more remarkable is that 370 Round Hill Road includes an assortment of support buildings: barns, icehouse, chicken coop and greenhouse, all built some 100 years ago. It all sits on one corner of four acres of prime Round Hill real estate, appraised just a few years ago at $2.3 million.

“Can you imagine all this torn down?” Louise Mueller asks, pointing to a stand of century-old black walnut trees lining a stone wall. Louise and her husband, Edgar, bought the property in 1986. A Riverside couple who started the Black Forest Pastry Shop off Greenwich Avenue in 1982, the Muellers found the old farm a pleasant place to garden, and a link to Louise’s own girlhood on a farm in Germany. To make the property pay, they rented the farmhouse out as apartments, and the barns for storage.

Over time, Louise grew worried. Around the farm, horse trails and bike paths disappeared while fences went up. “All the old places disappeared, and up came these fancy mansions,” she says. What would happen to this rustic oasis after they could no longer look after it?

The Muellers’ answer: Donate it outright to the Greenwich Land Trust. Louise didn’t know much about the organization going in, but she liked what she heard they stood for—holding forever safe from development whatever land they are given. She made them a simple offer: If you promise to leave the buildings up for a time, we will give you the property outright.

“I want to preserve this property, and that overrides everything,” Louise remembers saying.

It’s a principle the Greenwich Land Trust can relate to. Founded in 1976, the GLT holds outright, or via easement rights, 737 acres of property in both isolated and contiguous pockets in and around Greenwich. Yet despite such vast acreage, the Land Trust has never enjoyed a high profile.

“People know who the United Way is, who the Historical Society is,” notes Jane Hogeman, a real-estate attorney who is the current GLT president. “The Land Trust is a little bit mysterious.”

How They Have Grown Up

In the beginning, and well into the 1980s, when it was run by a cadre of well-connected local lawyers and garden-club members, the Land Trust had a relaxed, informal air, a sense of making things up as it went along. Louisa Stone, a president back in the early 1990s, remembers “a one-man show” where the GLT’s founder and first president, Paul van der Stricht, tirelessly set up property bequests going door-to-door. “He would visit elderly ladies, have tea with them, and ask, ‘Wouldn’t you love to give something to the town?’”

Such informality is no longer an option. Maintaining properties costs money. The more land the Land Trust acquires (averaging some 180 acres per decade), the more critical the need to fundraise. That in turn requires steps toward greater public visibility and accountability, including a painful accreditation process completed in 2011.

“You can’t just be a relaxed group of friends sitting around someone’s living room with a box full of papers,” Hogeman says. “You have to upgrade yourself to a professional organization. It took a number of years.”

Comprising ponds, meadows, marshes, woodlands, even 5.2-acre Shell Island off Belle Haven, the widespread holdings of the Greenwich Land Trust are maintained as much as possible in their natural state. Nature, however, doesn’t always cooperate. When Hurricane Sandy hit, roughly 600 trees on Land Trust property were knocked down, requiring a costly, labor-intensive endeavor of chainsawing and drag-hauling that continues today.

There is also the more inexorable problem of protecting properties from the incursions of invasive, nonnative plants, which spread like wild fire and blot out native flora if unchecked.

Steve Conaway and Matt Spinner are the sole GLT staffers overseeing seventy-four fee properties and nineteen easements under Land Trust authority. One hot morning found them at a four-acre lot on Ridgeview Avenue in North Greenwich, overseeing the removal of a tree trunk from a pond.

While Spinner pulls out some nearby garlic mustard sprouts, Conaway points out the other invasive species all around: wineberry, privet, honeysuckle, barberry. “You can almost predict the weeds you are going to find here,” Conaway says. “You see invasives all over. Exotic imports come to us from the horticulture trade. Neighbors plant them, and then they spread. We have a lot of neighbors, and plantings can escape.”

Educating people on which plants are good for the local ecosystem, and which aren’t, has long been a part of Land Trust outreach. Conaway and Spinner would like to do more, but that not only costs money it requires a physical location suitable for garden tutorials.

At the moment, the GLT operates out of a single-room, second-story office above Domino’s Pizza, overlooking the Post Road in Cos Cob. Thin partitions separate four full-time staffers. The lone conference room is shared on a sign-in basis with other building tenants.

All this will change soon, however, thanks to the Muellers and that little farmhouse on Round Hill Road. It is that farmhouse where the Land Trust hopes to move next year, transforming it into their new headquarters.

“Not only does it bespeak our mission, but it also provides a laboratory for Matt and Steve to propagate plants, to educate our friends and be a living example of what land preservation is about,” notes GLT board member and retired CPA Bruce Dixon.

The barns, icehouse and greenhouse are already being used to house maintenance equipment. In an old metal closet inside the chicken coop, one finds paper bags containing native plant seeds, each marked for planting at different properties.

The big deal, of course, will be the farmhouse itself, when GLT offices finally move in. The eerie part is, 100 years old or not, the house seems to have been built for them. Reconfiguring the house to suit GLT purposes requires merely knocking down some walls that were added in the 1970s to accommodate apartments, and restoring the building to its original state.

“The conference room will be the old front parlor,” GLT Executive Director Virginia Gwynn notes. “The living room makes for a great reception area. There’s even an addition to the kitchen they built for keeping dairy products that we can use for the maintenance men to come in and out without having to take off their muddy boots. It’s fantastic.”

Janice Richards, a board member and communications executive who becomes the Land Trust’s new president in January, sees the Mueller Preserve providing a physical presence the GLT previously lacked. “This is going to be a highly visible place for us,” she says.

As perfect as it all sounds today, the Land Trust was quite reluctant initially to take the buildings with the land. Hogeman notes questions of liability as well as upkeep costs. “If our board decided to undertake it, we had to think about providing the wherewithal so that future boards aren’t burdened with that,” Hogeman recalls.

In fact, only one prior Land Trust acquisition included a building, an imposing Gothic turret that towers over Shell Island. And that itself, as then-president Louisa Stone recalls, was no easy sale.

When the GLT first replied to Louise Mueller’s offer, they said they might be willing to accept the farm’s outbuildings, but not the farmhouse itself. She insisted. To her, the whole thing forms one integral eco-historical package. She held out for a twenty-five-year commitment on keeping the farmhouse, and a fifty-year commitment on the other buildings.

“My lawyer told me, ‘Why do you go on with this?’” Nor were the tenants in the farmhouse too understanding. “They said, ‘If she gives things away, why should we pay rent?’”

Louise Mueller is a woman of palpable tenacity, as the Land Trust discovered, and they eventually agreed to the provisions to keep all the buildings, at least for the immediate future. Now they sound happy they did, seeing the farmhouse as concomitant with their new fundraising needs. “We now will have a great building to use as our headquarters, and all we have to do is rip out some walls and add a handicap-access ramp,” Richards explains.

For Louise’s part, the new situation is a dream come true. Walking through the property one sunny day for the first time in two months, she marveled at the extensive clean-up work underway in preparation for the GLT’s move.

“What the Land Trust is doing, I think it’s wonderful,” she says. “I know it will take awhile. Right now, it’s a mess. But eventually, this will be good for Greenwich, like we always knew it would be.”

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