Land Trust Honors Past President Charlie Leach
“I believe very strongly in preserving,” Charlie said. And he was willing to go to the mat for preservation when he tackled a major problem for land trusts – property encroachments.
This year, the Farmington Land Trust is honoring Charlie Leach, one of our most stellar volunteers. His passionate commitment to land preservation and his long-time dedication to our mission - to protect open space in perpetuity - have benefitted the Land Trust and our town immensely. But Charlie’s influence and the results of his hard work extend beyond Farmington, and his stewardship story starts long before he came to town.
If anyone could claim a genetic predisposition for loving the great outdoors, it would be Charlie Leach. His family has roots in Montana and Vermont; his grandfather worked with Teddy Roosevelt to set up Montana’s Glacier National Park. But what may have come naturally was also heavily nurtured by his family. “I took my first pack trip – to Pike’s Peak in Colorado – when I was four,” he reports.
Very early on, he became aware of just how fragile nature is. “We were living in Vermont, and I was hiking, camping and learning to hunt. But I couldn’t fish because the rivers had been polluted by sawmills.” He credits that early recognition as the kick-off to his continued commitment to environmental preservation.
Born in Beijing, China, Charlie grew up all over the world. His father, a public health doctor who worked with the Rockefeller Foundation, ran programs in such diverse places as Alabama, Paris, countries in central Europe… the list goes on. Amherst, Massachusetts, was home for Charlie’s college days. Then, Columbia Medical School, a residency at Bellevue Hospital and a cardiology fellowship at New York Hospital kept him in New York City for several years.
Bellevue would change his life. On his first day at the hospital, he remembers, a “nice young nurse who was running a thirty-five-bed ward showed me around. That was Joanie.” Charlie and Joanie married in 1962 and moved to their house in Farmington in 1968 when Charlie began to practice cardiology. Joanie and Charlie raised four children in Farmington, passing on their love of the land with frequent hiking and camping trips. Eventually Charlie would become director of cardiology at New Britain General Hospital and a clinical professor of medicine at UCONN School of Medicine. He retired from medicine in 2000. Joanie continued her nursing career and ultimately retired from teaching gerontology at the University of St. Joseph’s.
Charlie’s involvement in community issues includes past presidencies of the Farmington Historical Society and the Farmington Land Trust. “I believe very strongly in preserving,” he notes. And he was willing to go to the mat for preservation when he tackled a major problem for land trusts – property encroachments. A developer had cut down trees on a FLT property, the better to enhance the view from the houses he was building, and FLT reported it to the town. That’s when Charlie learned that not a whole lot could be done about it. “Preservation without protection was what we had,” he remembers. “There was nothing in state law that valued trees for aesthetics, only for firewood.”
Charlie got in touch with nearly 100 other Land Trusts and learned that encroachments were a major issue for most. Along with FLT president John Vibert, board member Tina Delaney and Representative Demetrios Giannaros, he went to work on a law with some teeth. The Connecticut State Council on Environmental Quality made the encroachment problem their issue of the year, and in 2006, Public Act 06-89 was passed. If “a person” encroaches on “open space land,” the act allows land trusts to sue for damages and reimbursement for restoration work and for court and attorney fees. The Land Trust has cited this law to address violations on several of its properties.
But his advocacy efforts weren’t over. Along with John Vibert and Jeff Hogan, Charlie also worked to successfully separate the Town Planning and Zoning Committee from the Inland Wetlands Commission. “Having them one and the same did a disservice to protecting wetlands,” he explains. At the 2007 Land Trust Alliance Rally in Denver, Charlie was awarded the Alliance’s Volunteer of the Year Award for his advocacy work (see photo above).
Today, Charlie continues to focus on Land Trust issues. “Land trusts are often perceived as elitist, and we need to change that. I’d like to see us move toward being more relational to urban communities, and I want us better known. And I would hope for more programs and more advocacy work, along with attendance at more land trust rallies.”
Still, he is pretty happy with what he’s been able to do for the Farmington Land Trust. What’s he most proud of? “I found Richard Kramer as a board member,” he laughs. “That’s one of my greatest achievements!”