UConn’s agriculture, garden programs to be forced out of Bethel site: ‘Something isn’t right’

BETHEL — To the dismay and confusion of many, the University of Connecticut is being forced to find a new location for its Fairfield County Extension Center after more than 60 years at 67-69 Stony Hill Road.

UConn received notice in February that the lease its regularly renewed for decades would be terminated, and the university would need to find a new homebase for its regional extension programs.

“We’re very, very sorry to see this happen,” said Bonnie Burr, assistant director and head of UConn’s Department of Extension.

For decades, the Stony Hill site has served as UConn’s Fairfield County Extension location, offering a range of programs — from master gardening and youth development to nutrition, home horticulture and urban agriculture — and services like soil nutrient analysis to people in Bethel and Fairfield County.

“Bethel and Fairfield County have benefited from the tremendous programs run out of that office, and we’re very disappointed that we’re not being able to stay,” she said.

The lease termination notice came from Stony Hill Preserve, Inc. — a 501(c)(3) that acquired the 11-acre property in May 2017.

“We couldn’t serve the extension the way it needed to be served and also take care of the property,” said Stony Hill Preserve’s vice president, Madeline Bunt, who declined further comment on the decision to terminate UConn Extension’s lease.

The organization’s decision has not only raised questions and concerns, but sparked outrage among those involved with the Bethel-based extension center.

“All of a sudden, a lease termination (notice) was given — and now our objective is to stop that,” said Fairfield County Extension volunteer and master gardener Barbara Stauder, who — along with other master gardeners — started a petition at the Bethel Farmers Market last month that has harvested more than 200 signatures.

“There was a lot of dismay and concern about what was going on and how extension will have to leave,” Stauder said. “Many people were questioning why this would be happening. That is a question we all want to know.”


Like Stauder, UConn Extension’s Fairfield County master gardener program coordinator, Sandra Wilson, has suspicions about the Stony Hill Preserve’s motives.

“We’re getting kicked off this land, we don’t know what’s going on and we can’t get any real answers from anybody,” Wilson said. “Something is amiss here. Something isn’t right.”

While Stauder and Wilson are concerned that the property could be developed, Bunt said Stony Hill Preserve doesn’t plan to do so.

“There’s a lot of talk about condos and development — that will not happen,” she said. “Extension is moving out, and our plans are to keep the property as is.”

Bethel’s town planner, Beth Cavagna, confirmed no plans for the property have been submitted.

“I don’t know why lies are being spread,” Bunt said, adding that rumors about the property were circulating even before Stony Hill Preserve’s decision to terminate UConn Extension’s lease.

“About two years ago, a couple of people called and told me they heard we sold it to a livestock farmer,” she said. “That wasn’t true either.”

Stauder said she would like to see UConn’s lease continued and the property returned to its original owner: the Fairfield County Agricultural Extension Council — a nonprofit volunteer group, formed in the mid-1950s, to oversee and run the Stony Hill Road property for UConn.

“Extension is there to serve the community, and we just want that to continue at the location that was set aside for that purpose,” she said.

Stauder said anyone interested in signing the master gardeners’ petition can do so during farmers market hours — Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. — at the UConn Extension site on Stony Hill Road.

“We have a table at the farmers market, and we are also in the demo garden nearby,” she said, noting the garden is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 to 11 a.m., weather permitting.

Despite the effort, Bunt says the petition will have no effect on Stony Hill Preserve’s decision to terminate UConn’s lease because it ultimately comes down to landlord-tenant law.

“A lease is a contract, and only the landlord or the tenant can contest it,” she said.

Search for a new site

UConn was given six months to vacate the property, but Burr says that won’t be possible.

“We were asked to leave the property by Aug. 1, but ... we will not be leaving at that time because we’ve got programs going on,” she said. “We also need time to find a new space.”

UConn plans to remain at 67-69 Stony Hill Road until early 2023 on a month-to-month rental basis — as permitted by its contract with Stony Hill Preserve — as it actively works to find a new site for its Fairfield County Extension programs.

Burr said the search for a new location is already underway.

“The first thing we do when we no longer have the ability to utilize a location is go to the state properties list to see if there are any in the area,” she said. “From there, we go into the open market to see what rental space might be available.”

Not only is 67-69 Stony Hill Road an “irreplaceable location,” according to Wilson, but finding a site to accommodate all that the Fairfield County Extension Center offers will be difficult.

“It’s a perfectly convenient location and people have been coming here for years,” she said. “We’ve built up a client base, and who knows if they’ll follow us to wherever the new place may be.”

UConn Extension’s presence in Bethel dates to the mid-20th century, when the Fairfield County Farm Bureau started acquiring Stony Hill land for the purpose of creating a space for educational programs in farming and home economics as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nationwide Cooperative Extension Program.

In 1960, the bureau transferred the property to the Fairfield County Agricultural Extension Council, which had signed a memorandum of understanding and formed a partnership with the University of Connecticut three years earlier.

“That memorandum of understanding was for them to assist us with programs, provide community insight and help with activities for the programs that we run out of that office,” Burr said.

About five years ago, the longtime partnership started to change when new members joined the Fairfield County Agricultural Extension Council and voted to transfer ownership of 67-69 Stony Hill Road to the Stony Hill Preserve, Inc.

“Apparently, they got some new members on the council who convinced everybody to give it to a different nonprofit,” Burr said, noting that leaving 67-69 Stony Hill Road was not something UConn wanted to do.

“We’re very sad to have to leave now that it’s been transferred to another entity,” she said. “UConn definitely wanted to stay there — there’s no question about that.”