July 8, 2007
By THOMAS KAPLAN, Courant Staff Writer
OLD SAYBROOK - Atop a tree-lined hill just a half-mile from Main Street, the view stretches unobstructed from Old Lyme down the Connecticut River to Long Island Sound.
In a town known for its water views, there is none better than this. And it's a view that for decades was only enjoyed by the town's garbage.
The town's long-shuttered landfill is here along the banks of the river, blocking a wide stretch of the town's scenic waterfront. But this fall, when the former landfill reopens as a park, residents will finally get to see a view that most don't even know exists.
About 50 miles upstream sits Hartford's landfill, set to close next year. There is talk of converting it into a park. A waterfront park on the site of an old landfill just opened in Stamford. One in Norwich is out for bid.
Across the state, more towns are starting to make use of their landfills.
"It's becoming more common," said David McKeegan, an environmental analyst with the state Department of Environmental Protection. "There's not a lot of available land in this area in the Northeast, so a lot of the towns that used to have these landfills operating ... start to look at those to do things with, like passive recreation or active recreation."
More landfills are closing today than ever before.
The number of landfills nationwide has decreased from 8,000 to 1,500 over the past two decades, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In Connecticut, only about 25 are left in operation, with hundreds of others sitting vacant in nearly every town across the state. More are expected to close in the next few years.
A closed landfill might seem like a permanent eyesore, a toxic Chernobyl tucked away in nearly every city or town, big or small. But many towns are finding that to be far from the case.
In Old Saybrook, there is some skepticism about how alluring a park might be when it's on top of a mountainous landfill - known locally as Mount Saybrook.
After all, for generations, the site has been known as the landfill, though it's been closed since the 1970s and used only for leaf collection since. In line with its heritage, the site has also been home to much illegal dumping over the years.
Longtime resident Barbara Guenther, who is chairwoman of the committee overseeing the redevelopment of the dump into a park, knows there's more to the site than just garbage.
"I say, `Drive down there,'" Guenther said. "When you drive to that site, and when you look out at what's there, it's magnificent."
Slightly less magnificent is the current state of the massive landfill along I-91 in Hartford. But the dump is slated to be closed for good at the end of next year.
Many ideas for the use of the site after that date have centered on recreation. The dump, once properly capped, could accommodate basketball courts, a skateboard park, a dog park, or walking and hiking trails.
"It's a beautiful location," said Paul Nonnenmacher, a spokesman for the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, which runs the dump. "There is a lot of potential there for things like hiking trials, or maybe a fitness trail - some type of passive recreational use."
And such a conversion is not very hard to do, according to Bruce Haskell, an engineer who specializes in landfill reuse.
There are limitations to what a community can do, depending on the size and shape of a landfill, but testing has shown that parks, playing fields and golf courses built on top of old landfills are safe, he said.
"In urban areas, in areas where there's not a lot of land, it's great space to use for parks and recreational fields that couldn't be built anywhere else," said Haskell, who works for Cambridge, Mass.-based CDM, a consulting firm that is among the industry's leaders in capping and reusing landfills.
Elsewhere in the state, dumps are just as prevalent, but they don't look like dumps anymore. Last month, Stamford officials held a ceremony to reopen Kosciusko Park, home to soccer and baseball fields, a picnic pavilion and more, right on Stamford's waterfront.
The 16-acre park was built on a landfill that closed in 1974, and it just underwent a $3.2 million renovation. But the park is a reminder of the care that must be taken in building anything on an old dump; the park restoration was halted in 2002 because DEP officials discovered the dump hadn't been properly closed several decades earlier.
While those types of complications do exist, most towns haven't been deterred from trying to make something out of their old dumps.
A sports complex in Shelton is built on part of a landfill. Coventry is looking into converting its dump into a park, and so is Berlin.
The old landfill there hasn't been in use since the 1950s and is near the heart of the town's commercial district, making it a prime target in the city's revitalization efforts, said Berlin's economic development director, James Mahoney. A Stop & Shop was recently built on part of the landfill, and the city is seeking proposals from consultants for the design of the park, he said.
The city of Norwalk, meanwhile, plans to spend upward of $1 million over the next several years to build Oyster Shell Park, located on a landfill that closed more than three decades ago.
But because the landfill has been closed for so long, most people see it as abandoned land, said Susan Sweitzer, senior project manager for development at the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency. "There are very few people in this community who actually remember dumping their garbage there," she said.
The contract for the park work should go out to bid by next spring, Sweitzer said. The site has sweeping views of the city's harbor and of Long Island Sound.
"New Englanders have an absolute knack for picking the absolutely most beautiful places to dump their garbage," she said.
In Old Saybrook, there is still much work to be done.
Currently, the site looks nothing like a park. The 13 acres remain mostly dirt and gravel, with giant mounds of leaves dotting the site.
But the view is remarkable, stretching 180 degrees from Old Lyme across to North Cove and beyond to Long Island Sound. And by fall, with a little landscaping and cleanup, this will be known as Founders Memorial Park, with a scenic vista unlike any other in the area - all for about $100,000 of grading and landscaping. "A winner," First Selectman Michael Pace called it.
Few in town are concerned that what lies beneath the park will deter residents from going there. And across the state, old garbage dumps are smelling better and better to residents, DEP's McKeegan said.
"I think more and more people are becoming acclimated to it, because it's happening all over the country," he said. "And I think the more it happens, the more it demonstrates that we can use these old sites in a positive fashion. There doesn't have to be a stigma."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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