Justin Farmer has lived 24 of his 28 years on the same block in Hamden’s Newhall neighborhood. For the past six years, he’s also served as its councilperson on the town’s Legislative Council. When he looks at the 102 acres of ponds and forest owned by the Olin Corporation adjacent to Newhall—a natural oasis that’s off-limits due to industrial pollution—he sees three big opportunities. Which he emphasizes depends on whether he’s thinking like a resident or thinking like a councilperson.
As a resident, Farmer sees the chance for access to nature in a part of town that sorely needs it. “This neighborhood doesn’t have a ton of open space,” he says. “So, allowing people to have a public space to be in nature I think is just really restorative, and important for relaxing and not constantly being in an urban environment.”
Farmer and his neighbors are also hoping for restorative justice from Olin, which is responsible for decades of industrial dumping that polluted Newhall. Farmer’s own childhood home is one of many that sank into the landfill on which it was built and had to be torn down. “There’s at least 15 plots that are empty. There were more homes than that torn down,” Farmer says. Every morning, he says, he looks out his window and sees the empty lot across the street where his childhood home once stood.
Over more than a decade in the early 2000s, Olin undertook a massive cleanup of Newhall under the supervision of the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). Now, Farmer sees the cleanup of the last 102 acres—locally known as Olin Powder Farm and christened Six Lakes for its six small ponds by the coalition working to preserve it as a public park—as an opportunity for restorative justice. “There was a great harm done,” he says. “Everyone knows it, everyone understands it, and yet nothing has been done. And so now, as we have come to a more enlightened time when we understand that dumping of toxic chemicals in a residential neighborhood that’s predominantly Black is bad for the environment and affects disenfranchised people—maybe we should do something about it.”
That something is a movement to turn Six Lakes into a public park, open to all and part of a larger network of green space and trails that loops like an “emerald necklace” through Greater New Haven. The Six Lakes Park Coalition has been working toward this goal for several years. The coalition brings together local elected officials, residents in Newhall and other nearby neighborhoods, religious and neighborhood leaders, statewide land trusts, and environmental organizations—including Save the Sound, which helps to coordinate the coalition’s steering committee. Last November, Hamden’s Legislative Council unanimously passed a “Resolution Concerning Restorative Justice for Southern Hamden and Urging the Conversion of the Former ‘Olin Powder Farm’ to a Public Space Consistent with the Community’s Vision.” This was later signed by Mayor Lauren Garrett.
The Town of Hamden and SLPC will be co-sponsoring a community informational meeting on Thursday, June 29, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the M.L. Keefe Community Center, 11 Pine Street, in Hamden. DEEP will present the latest information on testing at the site, which Olin is conducting this spring and summer.
As a councilperson, Farmer sees a third opportunity attached to Six Lakes: commercial revitalization of nearby parts of Newhall. “In this part of Hamden, there’s no anchor to bring people, to bring businesses down here,” he says. With a Six Lakes Park along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail bike path, which passes a commercial plaza at the corner of Dixwell and Putnam Avenues, “all of a sudden, there are more reasons for people to stop in, to shop, to be engaged in that immediate community.”
Land conservation projects often take time, but the persistence required for this one has been Herculean. Farmer isn’t the only member of the Six Lakes Park Coalition steering committee who wasn’t even born yet in 1969, when The Hamden Land Conservation Trust was formed in order to approach Olin about acquiring the property for a park. In 1979, the Town of Hamden studied the feasibility of creating a park on the “Powder Farm,” but again, the project came to naught. A 1986 consent order between Olin and the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) called for industrial waste on the property to be cleaned up. Olin started the job, but never finished it. While that process has been rebooted with the current testing to update key information needed for a remediation plan, the issue of land ownership and management also remains unresolved. So, it’s not surprising to find skeptics today who wonder whether the time will ever come for the chain link fence circling Six Lakes to come down and the public to be invited in permanently.
Newhall activist and SLPC steering committee member Elizabeth Hayes isn’t one of them. “At this point, I am very optimistic because as a team working on the project, I think we have most of the parts, we have most of the people with expertise and knowledge that can carry this out,” she says. “Now what we have to do is make sure that everyone’s playing their role, and these roles have to be able to come together and complete the project so that the community of Hamden, the region, the state can enjoy a beautiful, exciting park in Hamden.”