Redding's Race For Open Space
In this matter of protecting the land through open space acquisition, there are almost as many versions of how and when it all began as there were principals involved in it. Former First Selectman Mary Anne Guitar recalls that she heard the starter's gun at the time of Redding's own bicentennial observance in 1967, civic pride being the catalyst. Samuel Hill recalled a knock at his door some four years earlier. In the opening stood a caller from the Republican Women's Club, with a petition urging formation of a Redding Conservation Commission (of which Hill would become first chairman). And Stuart Chase, the resident author and economist, would necessarily take a longer view of things by rooting for origins in the colonial past. Quoting Ebba Anderson's account of Redding when it was but a parish of Fairfield Town in 1729, Chase noted that "Redding ... was restricted to pasture only and could not be built on. Thus our open space program really began some 250 years ago." So perhaps it was a little bit of all these things, and likely more, that seeded the open space idea in Redding, and nourished it from scarcely a single acre of public green four decades ago into the more than 4,000-acre mosaic of protected natural lands we enjoy today (not including State Forest lands).
The best hindsight guess is that "open space" was not a term commonly used before 1960. Throughout the nation; people were preoccupied with another phrase: “The American Dream.” And the dream consisted of a home in the suburbs. From Boston to Washington, South Bend to Milwaukee, San Rafael to San Jose, Americans by the millions had been flocking to suburban places almost since the end of World War II. They came first to the burghs at the city's edge, and filled them up, and then moved on to fill the next tier of shade-tree ·towns down the glimmering highway. It was a cinch-the GI Bill and five-percent interest on the mortgage. Down came the trees, up went the houses. And in came the city. "It can't happen here,'' the people said. But happen it did. Suddenly, the suburbanite was looking at this great big crack in the picture window of his American Dream.
A clear sense of what had been lost, not to mention the specter of bulldozers leap-frogging into the rural landscapes of exurban communities, brought forth reactions. Among the first and most effective was a report issued in 1960 by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) of New York City: THE RACE FOR OPEN SPACE. Conceived by the visionary planner Stanley Tankel, the RPA study showed that, at its current rate of growth, the 22-county New York metropolitan region was destined to lose as much land to urbanization in a generation as had been settled and built upon over the preceding 200 years. What to do about it? Save the open spaces. To a great extent, THE RACE FOR OPEN SPACE was a seminal document. Within a few years, it was followed by a national study (by Ann Louise Strong) and Connecticut's own Open Space Plan (by William H. Whyte), emphasizing the need to protect ridgetops and valley streams.
Meanwhile, in New York City, Richard Pough was organizing the Open Space Action Committee, with adman-writer Charles E. Little at its helm to dispense the technical-and philosophical-information. The word spread fast. For the crowded Northeast, and in urban California, open space preservation became the environmental leitmotif of the 1960s. In a foreword to Little's first book, STEWARDSHIP, U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall called for action to save "these parcels of wild land where nature holds sway.'' People in urbanizing regions, he noted, "recognize the need for a contact with nature as the touchstone that gives meaning to our lives and purpose to our enterprise ... Our burgeoning metropolitan areas are now a stage on which a new conservation drama is unfolding."
In Redding, Connecticut, the curtain was just about ready to go up.
It must have seemed an unlikely place for any kind of drama, this little town with the white steeples perched upon its ridgetops. History had brushed Redding with a light touch, and left her better known for notable residents- Charles Ives, Samuel Clemens and Edward Steichen, among others-than for great events. A case might be made for the happenings of Revolutionary War times: General Israel Putnam's winter encampment, the hangings on Gallows Hill. But, for the most part, the real action was elsewhere, in Ridgefield or Danbury; though it is said that at least one shot was fired here in anger. A British trooper, passing through, plinked a gilded weather vane off one of the steeples. The shot was not heard 'round the world.
Early Redding was a quiet place of scattered homes and big farms. Cows grazed over its meadows and rocky hillsides. At the north end of town was a limekiln, perhaps the very first in all of Connecticut. The limestone powder was barreled to New York and made into plaster. At the south end of town, and on into Weston, colliers made charcoal. Down came the trees, up went the smoke. It was a bald sort of place, between the pastures and the kilns. But nobody minded. Stone walls running across the open hillsides were proof enough that all was well in Redding Town. Until the exodus of the mid-19th century. As one writer recounted it:
America was on the move, west. There was a canal called Erie. It dropped the cost of freight between New York and Buffalo from a hundred dollars a ton to five. In the markets of Manhattan, Chenango potatoes, at cheaper prices, were outselling Connecticut's. From out beyond the Alleghenies came tales of soils so rich and deep, and land so cheap, it just didn't pay any farming man to stay put in the East. So Yankees packed out to the Western Reserve; and before too long, on the maps of Ohio, there were towns with such names as Norwalk and Greenwich and Grafton and Litchfield and North Fairfield and Avon and Farmington and Madison and Windsor. On a thousand hillsides in New England, the forest bounced back from the weeds of the left-behind farms.
Some farming prevailed for a while yet in the precincts of Redding. But as time went on, not much. By the 1930s, with the forest vigorously regenerating and the human population scaled down to a scant ·1,600, Redding had become a kind of last redoubt for tenacious Yankee stock and a summer retreat for creative and professional folks from the Big Town. The visiting gentry fancied Redding's sylvan isolation (though they liked it even better after Rural Electrification enabled many to convert their summer homes into year-round residences). What they didn't like was the idea of change.
When the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company announced plans to condemn several thousand acres in Redding, to dam the Saugatuck River and flood the hemlock woods of Redding Glen in order to store up water for folks on the shore, the ridgetop steeples reverberated to a chorus of protest. Save the Glen! A committee was formed, with Stuart Chase among its leaders, to fight the project. It was a losing battle. By the mid- 1940s, much of the Glen was growing fish at the bottom of the Saugatuck Reservoir. But at the same time, some 2,800 acres of prime watershed land had been taken off the market. Stuart Chase was among the first to concede that this, quite apart from the drowning of the Glen, was a very good thing for Redding-coming, as it did, at a time when the town had 110 effective land-use regulations to control the incoming tide of residential development.
Chase had been writing about the economics of landsaving for some time, and now, as secretary of the Redding Planning Commission, he was getting others to think seriously about· it, too. In 1963, at the Commission's behest, resident pollster Elmo Roper prepared an opinion survey raising fourteen questions altogether. One inquired of respondents if they were "in favor of buying open space now for future town needs?" The response was overwhelmingly positive-73 percent said “aye.” Though it was only an idea, the need for action was becoming increasingly clear with each passing month. Chase, at his typewriter, sounded the alarm. In his "Long View" column for The Redding Pilot of July 14, 1965, he wrote:
The Williams Farm on Sunset Hill is being cut up into sixty two-acre lots, with another development looming on its border. Half a dozen other large holdings are rumored on the verge of development ... If there is no planning beyond the present two-acre lot minimum, 10,000 acres could go into a tangle of subdivisions, with school costs boosting the mill rate. The moment of truth has arrived . . . On the record, I think we can put considerable confidence in the following: The more open space we can save, the lower our future taxes will be, and the pleasanter the town.
The stage was set. For Samuel Hill, chairman of the newly-appointed Conservation Commission, and Gay Ewing, its secretary, the first order of business was to prepare (in the words of a Town Report) "a list of all land holdings of appreciable size as a preliminary step toward adoption of an open space plan and map for the town." Hill and Ewing focused on priorities: wetlands and greenbelts along the stream valleys, and areas adjacent to the Redding schools which might serve as outdoor classrooms for natural science studies. These recommendations, reviewed and endorsed by the Zoning and Planning commissions, were officially adopted as town policy in the summer of 1965. For its long-range goal, the open space plan envisioned permanent protection for 5,000 acres of land-a quarter of the town. Now Redding was in a position to apply for the federal and state funds that were up for grabs in a new, complicated and highly competitive game called open space grantsmanship.
In the nation's effort to save its metropolitan countrysides from buckshot development, and to throw some new "parks?' into the bargain as well, two funding programs had evolved: first, the Open Space Program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and, later, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, administered by the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR), in the U.S. Interior Department, through the resource agencies of the various states. In the mid-1960's, for example, about $50 million from the Fund was made available each year to the states, and through them to their counties and municipalities. The general formula was that the feds would pay half the cost. of an acceptable land acquisition project, while the state split the difference with the applicant-municipality. HUD, for the most part, favored open space projects designed to shape or define good developments while foreclosing on bad ones; recreation and conservation criteria were secondary considerations. BOR, on the other hand, placed its emphasis on recreational projects, with a strong bias in favor of resource protection and the development of com~ unity _hiking trails. Most Americans, President Lyndon Johnson had explained in a policy statement, could not afford to travel to the great national parks of the Far West. "Our new conservation," he said, "must build on a new principle: Bringing nature closer to people."
In Redding, one fine piece of nature was sitting right there off Lonetown Road, across from the Elementary School. Murphy's Swamp, they called it; seven acres of water and marshy edge, and beech in the uplands. The Conservation Commission urged acquisition, and a Town meeting approved. On January l, 1967, Redding took title to the swamp that would soon be known as Lonetown Marsh. And with that, Sam Hill began to deal some cards to the grants players of Hartford and Washington. To borrow a phrase from the parlance of poker, Hill reached down to fill out a royal flush. Over the next six years, he would file with state and federal officials a dozen applications for open space grants. Considering the competition-nationwide, the odds against an application's approval ran better than four-to-one-Hill's score was remarkable, and perhaps unprecedented. Of the dozen applications, every one was approved.
In so many ways, the pivotal year was 1967. The town's first open space acquisition in January, its bicentennial in August, its historic town meeting in October, authorizing so much of the action over the years ahead. In anticipation of that meeting, Hill composed a discussion paper, from which the following lines are excerpted:
It has generally been held by students of the subject that at least 20 percent of the area of a town should be preserved as open space. While this may sound like a very large area indeed, it should be remembered that 17 percent of the City of New York is composed of public parks alone ... The Conservation Commission proposes that the town acquire approximately 4,000 acres between the . present time and the year 1980 ... It is not by any means clear, however, that federal and state aid will be available. If it is, the cost of acquiring such land would be little more than the cost of one new school, which would certainly be required if all the lands mentioned were developed.
Among the properties recommended for immediate acquisition was a tract called Umpawaug Estates, later to be known as the Saugatuck Falls Natural Area, and according to Sam Hill, "the best single area the town could acquire not owned by Bridgeport Hydraulic." A town meeting was called for October 20. Two issues were on the agenda. First-a financial commitment by the town to spend up to $1.3 million of its own funds on open space purchases, with or without grants-in-aid. Second-without certainty of federal and state reimbursements-appropriations of $320,000 to purchase the Saugatuck tract, and of $5,500 to acquire the four-acre Calve tract on the Little River south of Cross Highway. "What we are talking about," explained Finance Board member Bernard Frazier, "is the difference between an engagement and a marriage. We are getting engaged to $1.3 million . Later in the meeting, we will get married to $325,000."
Attending these fiscal ceremonies were 125 voters. No votes were cast in opposition to either the engagement or the marriage.
And so it went-parcel by parcel, meeting by meeting, grant by grant. The Rock Lot. The Dayton Tract. Ground Pine Sanctuary. Topstone Park (without grants). Jackson and Falasca (Limekiln and Gallows Hill natural areas). Gibson and Danks (Bogus Brook and Stormfield). Milestones secured not just by Hill and the conservationists but by a diverse coalition of advocates: Chase and the planners, Jim Edwards and the financiers, Mary Erlanger and the l,eague of Women Voters, Betty Hill and the Garden Clubbers, Mary Anne Guitar and the Land Trusters, William Karraker and the guarantors of Redding Open Lands, Inc.; David and Jo-an Brooks of the Poverty Hollow Association, Roger Anderson of the Limekiln Area Association, and Bob Maloy of the Citizens' Action Council. More supporters than you could shake a stick at, though some folks tried.
Apart from the unanimous vote of October 1967, almost always there was someone with a reason why it shouldn't or couldn't be done. Buy Murphy's Swamp? Good grief, said one skeptic, our children will drown in "the quicksand." Buy Topstone Pond? Too shallow, said another, it's no good for swimming. This same outspoken naysayer at an earlier meeting to consider acquisition of the Rock Lot, suggested that too much land was being relegated to "bird watching" and not enough to "swimming facilities." So at last the town found a swimming facility at Topstone Park. And what did our naysayer call it? He called it a "mud hole." Some folks are hard to please.
Then as suddenly as it all began, it ended. The funds dried up. The federal emphasis shifted elsewhere. The cost of land and the interest rates took: off through the ceiling. By 1975, Redding had secured 1,256 acres of municipal open space, not counting what had come its way through the Land Trust and Redding Open Lands, Inc. and what it might expect to receive through the customary open space setaside of ten percent of the land of any new subdivision over ten acres. Yet given the fact that all good things must come to an end sooner or later, one could hardly be surprised by the end of this acquisitive affair. By 1975, it wasn't the exurb that needed help. It was the city.
There was a shift of emphasis in Redding, too. No longer capable of buying large tracts of open space to protect natural resources and shape residential development, the town was compelled to rely on land-use controls exercised by the Planning and Zoning Commissions, and,. more recently, by the Conservation Commission, acting under a Connecticut statute regulating uses in or near wetlands and watercourses. And not a bad shift at that, for by 1980 the emerging issue for Redding was not so much the prospect of acquiring new open spaces as the need to protect the quantity and quality of its water supply-as a reservoir for the region, as an aquifer for itself.
Still, to the lands already acquired, there was a lingering commitment. John Behan, who succeeded Sam Hill as chairman of the Conservation Commission in 1976, recalled, "Now that we had the land, the question became: How are we going to use it?"
The first trails opened the town's green centerpiece-the Saugatuck Falls Natural Area. Soon other paths were reaching into the growing inventory of Land Trust holdings, too. In 1980, Olga Selleck, Behan's successor as chairman of the Conservation Commission, appointed an open space sub-committee to accelerate trail development throughout the rest of the town's natural lands. Volunteer crews were assembled to tackle the task. And neither rain nor sleet-nor catbriar, for that matter-could keep Commissioner Clois Ensor from his appointed rounds, loppers in one hand, bow saw in the other. In five years, the town's open space trail system (including trails under all jurisdictions) grew from barely ten linear miles to more than fifty. And it is growing still.
In the decade of the 60s, even as the open space movement was taking its first tentative steps to check the destruction of rural landscapes, another idea caught hold of the national conscience. It was this idea that we, t:he people, belong to the land far more than the land belongs to us. Perhaps such a lovely notion is best remembered in these words from a report to President John F. Kennedy's Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Committee:
The outdoors lies deep in American tradition. It has had immeasurable impact on the Nation's character and on those who made its history When an American looks for the meaning of his past, he seeks it not in ancient ruins, but more likely in mountains and forests, by a river, or at the edge of the sea. Today's challenge is to assure all Americans permanent access to their outdoor heritage.
Challenge accepted. J.G.M. ❧
The challenge has indeed been accepted. Since 1999, hundreds of acres have been added to Redding's open space holdings.
More recently, the State of Connecticut announced that it would once more provide assistance grants to municipalities for open space purchases. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), whose largest holding of land in the Northeast is Weston's Devil's Den (abutting Town land at the border of Redding's Great Ledge), was in the process of aggressively expanding its holdings within a large area of forest and river called the Saugatuck Forest Lands, one of just a few areas in the state that TNC has designated for special protection. Sharing costs with both the state and TNC, Redding, in the path of the Saugatuck Forest Lands, was able to acquire significant properties for open space-66 acres off Old Stage Coach Road (Turkington Falls); 116.8 acres on Greenbush Road (Granskog Natural Area); another 58.6 acres off Sunset Hill Road (John W Sanford Farm); and, some 50 acres off Limekiln Road. In the acquisition of one of these tracts, Redding Open Lands, Inc. came into action, reducing the cost of the land by applying its formula of developing a portion of the land to help pay for the purchase. Thus, in partnership with the state, TNC and ROLI, the Town has been able to acquire key sites earmarked for preservation on the Open Space Plan adopted in 1998. Another prime property-70 acres off Sunset Hill Road adjacent to Huntington State Park (Couch Hill Preserve)-was purchased with Town funds alone. Meanwhile, the Redding Land Trust significantly increased its holdings, in both gifts and easements, by some 900 acres.
In the neighboring town of Easton, too, land savers were registering a dramatic success, having fought back attempts by a developer to place a golf course and one hundred high-priced homes on a pristine 7 40-acre tract put on the market by Bridgeport Hydraulic Company. Trout Brook Valley would become a stunning example of how citizens could effectively organize and, applying relentless pressure, induce the state to commit millions of dollars for the purchase of open space. The success at Trout Brook Valley paved the way for the commitment by Connecticut's Governor and state legislature for the outright purchase of all former BHC Class II lands and the assignment of conservation easements on Class I lands. The cost: $80 million from the state and $10 million from TNC for 15,300 acres of land, 2,548 of which lie in Redding. Dedicated in 2004 as the Centennial Watershed State Forest, these lands are under the management of the Conservation Land Committee, comprised of representatives from Aquarion, the Department of Environmental Protection and TN C. New trails and connectors to existing trails are under discussion in the newly created state forest - but, alas, they are not yet ready for inclusion in this fourth edition of The Book of Trails. Since that first unanimous town meeting vote in 1967 to acquire open space for some $1.6 million, Redding has voted again and again through the years to invest in open space, the latest vote taken in a standing-room only meeting where· citizens overwhelming approved, with one or two naysayers, the latest purchase of Redding's most precious resource. J.M.R. ❧