EARTH DAY came 50 years ago on April 22, 1970 by Sidney Van Zandt

The first Earth Day held in Groton was produced by a newly formed organization called the Environmental Education Committee (EEC) It was headed by the late David McKain, an English professor at University of CT, Avery Point, and Sidney F. Van Zandt, President of the Groton Open Space Association (GOSA). The group was formed to put on Earth Day as well as to educate about the problems of pollution and be a “watchdog” in support of a quality environment in this area. The members consisted of everyone who cared, as well as the local Conservation Groups made up of students of local schools from Elementary to Jr. High and Fitch High schools as well as near-by colleges.  The group was formed to put on Earth Day activities at the University of CT, Avery Point. and they continued promoting the environment action and opposing inappropriate development that continued on for over 50 years.

That sunny warm day there was a “row-in and paddle” down the Thames River, Birch Plain Creek, Baker Cove, the Poquonnock River, Palmer Cove, and the Mystic River, around Bluff Point to Avery Point. Boat trips were given to go to Pine Island for instructive talks by Robert Dewire of the then Thames Science Center.

Afternoon workshops and panel discussions were conducted on air, water, noise pollution, land use, zoning, environmental law, pesticides, and population growth.  Other events were at Mitchell College about “the little man’s contribution to pollution.” Also covered were litter, problems of DDT, water and air pollution , as well as use of natural resources. A tree planting ceremony by Connecticut College students was held at Patchaug State Forest to protest the location there of the proposed “Jetport Industrial City”. Over 4,500 signatures against the Jetport were collected during those events.

Earth Day was a great success drawing more than 500 persons for the morning and afternoon events. Earth Day #2 the next year, on April 22, 1971, was held again at Avery Point with all day activities.

The (EEC) met weekly and they produced an “Environmental Guide” to help provide solutions for composting, biodegradable soap, where to purchase beverage in returnable bottles, landfill hours, bus schedules, etc. They coordinated non-credit courses, Ecology Clubs, courses at local schools and colleges.

A group of K-6 teachers put together an ”Ecology Curriculum”, which was a teaching guide for each class. Each section had a theme. K-2 was total overview; 3 was Forest, 4= Field, 5= marsh, and 6= Pond.  These books were presented to each teacher in K-6, in 7 local school systems that included Montville and Waterford. Each teacher received the chapter for their grade; each school library received the full book.

The students began the first recycling in the Town of Groton by placing three barrels across from Fitch High School at Public Works. They had one each for clear, green, and brown glass. also at Jr. High Schools, and numerous local stores.  People from town began filling the barrels; more were needed. The glass needed to be broken up to be delivered to Dayville for recycling. They then added containers for metal as well as paper.  It was so successful that the town had to take it over.

After Earth Day 2, a food coop was formed for organic and bulk products.  In Mystic “The Good Bread Bakery” began offering options to “spongy foam bread”, and “The Mischievous Carrot” was a vegetarian restaurant. Efforts were made to promote protection of the wetlands (sometimes then called “wastelands”), with efforts locally and up with the legislature in Hartford.

However, there were many other issues going on before April 22 1970. In 1963 the land known as the Haley Farm came up for sale, and the developer wanted to build duplex housing there for the Coast Guard so as to move them farther from the noise that would be at Avery Point where they were located, as the FAA was planning to expand our local airport to handle overflow flights from New York’s Kennedy Airport. After much objection from local residents, the Zoning application was overturned and a new organization was formed called “The Groton Open Space Association” (GOSA) to “Save the Haley Farm”. As both the Town Planning and The Regional Planning felt that its best use was “housing”, we then turned to the State who said that if we would raise $50,000 (the Town’s portion of an Open Space Grant) they would buy it as it abutted the 250 acres that they had purchased at Bluff Point in 1963.

In May of 1968 a major fund raising event called “Three Hundred years on the Haley Farm” was held at Fitch High School with the spring meeting of the CT Forest & Park Association, (the state-wide organization that voted to act as an umbrella organization to help us with fundraising). The gathering included State officials and residents. Local students lead tours. Following that event, fund raising began all over town with church suppers, car washes. Then Fitch teacher, Johnny Kelly, along with one of his former students, Amby Burfoot, both former Boston Marathon winners, proposed a Rock Concert to be held at the largest facility in town, the City Municipal Building and Mayor Sharp had difficulty with saying yes. (This was four months after the huge “Woodstock Concert”.) But finally he did. That really hit the news in all the local papers and allowed us to go over the top at our March 1, 1970 deadline of $50,000 (in today’s dollars over $350,000). Earth Day was one month later. Life Magazine in their July 4, 1970 issue (and again in early August) had a story called “Battles Won” that featured eight successful battles from all across the country, and Haley Farm was one of them.

However there were many other issues going on at the same time. **

Threats to Bluff Point:

*  The town developed a new sewer program including north to the sub base. The effluent was dumped directly into Mumford Cove. The DEEP told the town that all shellfishing would be banned forever from Ram Island to the Thames River. After 8 days of hearings, the town was ordered in 1975 to send the outfall via city streets to the Thames which had strong currents to disburse the effluent. (The town did nothing till 1985 when residents of Mumford Cove took them to court.)

*  The State proposed the Martin-Fine Plan that called for filling in the marshes behind the beach for a 5,000-car parking lot plus Coney Island-type facilities for the 3,000 feet of very narrow beach.

*  Grandiose plans were promoted for an East-West highway along Rt. 1 from Long Hill across to Fort Hill and perhaps to Mystic; a 4-lane highway from Rt. 395 to 95 down 117, through Fort Hill Homes, over the RR, down to the point to meet NY planner, Robert Moses’ bridge from LI.**

*  An application for a 400-boat marina on the Poquonnock River including a gas station was OK’d by the town, but was strongly opposed at the many hearings.

*  The Federal Energy Administration (FEA) had a plan for a strategic reserve for underground oil reserve requiring removal of 650,000 cubic yards of rock from the ridge for 3 underground oil chambers as well as a dockage for barges was turned down by local environmental organizations and the (DEP) Department of Environmental Protection.

*  Housing for about 400 homes in the southeastern section was proposed that would have required the town to purchase additional land and construction for schools.

*  Industrial development of the northern upper acres was Ok’d by the town, later purchased by the state and is now used for parking.

*  There was a proposed shipping- terminal-container- port proposal to cut through Bushy Point to deliver barges up Birch Plain Creek to meet train or plane.

*  Proposal for Helicopter Emergency landing area.

*  Expansion of the Airport threatening to close off Pine Island Bay to most boat traffic.

1972: Legislature formed the “Bluff Point Advisory Council” (BPAC) to come up with a plan for the “highest and best use” of the peninsula. There were 21 representatives from elected officials, the sciences, and environmental community. Co-Chair were Omar Allvord and Sidney F. Van Zandt.

January 1974: Republican Governor Thomas Meskill condemns Bluff Point, the last undeveloped piece of Connecticut shoreline to be saved for “Open Space”. (nearly 800 acres)

May 1975: The Legislature passes the Bluff Point Coastal Reserve Bill, signed by Democratic Governor Ella Grasso, June 19, 1975.

1984: Another proposition was made by Groton officials to use BP as a Town Beach. Commissioner Stanley Pac comments: “Unalterably opposed”, “Keep Bluff Point as it is”; “This is Open Space”, “without the dune grass, the entire sandy peninsula will disappear”!

2002: Upper 57 acres of the Haley Farm were purchased by Republican Governor John Rowland using “Recreation and Natural Resources Funds” (32 years after the lower property was saved.)

2002: The two parks were tied together by a bridge 115 feet long and 9 feet wide during Amtrak’s 5-year railway electrification project joining Haley Farm and Bluff Point, over 1,000 acres of coastal land saved and protected forever.**

Since then GOSA has been purchasing land for open space – (for maps go to gosaonline.org and click on “properties).  There have also been Earth Day gatherings, many at Avery Point where Environmental organizations have displayed tables and maps showing what was going on, what projects needed action. Except for this year because of the corona virus. However, every year one could look to the east at the wild peninsula called Bluff Point and beyond is Haley Farm that we all have visited, helped with the stewardship, over the years can say, “We have Made a Difference”. What a great celebration.                     *          *          *          *

Extra resources:
**The Day, April 10, 1976, “Groton Grapevine” by Jim Irvine
** The Day, April 2, 2017: “Groton Open Space Association marks 50 years of Conservation” by Steve Fagin.
** The Day 9.14.99:  Amtrak footbridge to link state parks in Groton:

The History Room in the Groton Library has about a dozen large scrapbooks telling the tale of all these events. (Put together by Sidney F. Van Zandt)

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