Essex just became many acres richer thanks to a local family’s donation in the heart of one of the town’s main recreational areas.

Known as the “Ray Unsworth Parcel,” the 164 acres donated by the late developer’s family contains a habitat block considered a high priority for conservation by the Agency of Natural Resources due to its wetlands, extensive wildlife habitats and prime agricultural soil and will help preserve an unbroken swath of habitat from the center of Essex to Colchester pond.

“We’re just so happy that we’re able to help the town of Essex with its goal of expanding recreational land,” said James Unsworth, the family’s agent and grandson of the land’s namesake.

Ray Unsworth purchased the land more than 50 years ago and donated it to his four children in the late 1980s. They had planned to develop the land, but a lengthy back-and-forth with Act 250 eventually showed the land would be difficult if not impossible to ever do so.

“It wasn’t really going to do us any good just to hold on to this raw, undeveloped land that we’re paying taxes on,” James Unsworth said, noting the family has never posted the land, instead allowing hunters, loggers and snowmobilers, among others, to access the property. “Why not gift it to the town of Essex in honor of my grandfather where everyone can enjoy this in perpetuity?”

Ray and Norma Unsworth are pictured near Key West, Fla. 50 years apart. The Unsworth family donated 164 acres to the town of Essex, a parcel now referred to as the Ray Unsworth Parcel (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Selectboard chairwoman Elaine Haney in a press release last month praised the Unsworths for their donation, noting that it abuts the beloved Indian Brook Park and aligns with a goal outlined in the town plan to protect Essex’s environmental resources.

“I credit the Unsworths for also appreciating the value of the property and taking steps to keep the land undeveloped,” Haney said in the press release. “The Town looks forward to being a steward of the land and carrying forward the memory of Ray Unsworth.”

Local representatives also recognized the donation last week in a House resolution read into the file by Rep. Marybeth Redmond, who offered a brief synopsis of Ray Unsworth’s life with the help of some biographical information shared by his daughter, Karen.

Born and raised in Burlington, Ray Unsworth was a long-time member of the Green Mountain Club. He attended Burlington High School and Middlebury College prior to graduating from an accelerated program at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and went on to captain anti-submarine patrols off the coast of Florida during World War II.

Later in his life, he worked in real estate development and was married to his wife, Norma Winberg Unsworth, for 66 years, raising four children.

Looking over her father’s bio last Friday, Karen Unsworth said she wrote up the information for the town in hopes that “when somebody asked 20 years from now, who’s this Ray Unsworth, there would be something.”

She said the recognition of the family’s donation, first from the town and then at the statehouse, has been “way beyond our expectations.” And though Ray Unsworth wasn’t able to witness his children’s decision to donate his land – he died in 2010 – his family said he would be proud.

“Dad was very civic minded; even though he was a developer, he was also very interested in open space,” Karen Unsworth said. “He would be extremely pleased.”