On Sunday afternoon a crowd of nearly 100 people, from citizens to activists to numerous elected officials, converged on the parking lot of ACES Whitney High School North on Leeder Hill Drive in Hamden. The purpose of the visit was the land behind the high school — 102 acres of forest, lakes, and wetlands, closed off from the public for decades because of its use as a place to test firearms and munitions and dispose of toxic waste…
After decades of stasis, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the Olin Corporation have taken the first steps toward remediating the Powder Farm in southern Hamden, with an eye to transforming the over 100-acre parcel of land from environmental hazard to forested public park. But there’s still a long road ahead.
That was the message from a public meeting held at Keefe Community Center at 11 Pine St. in Hamden, at which DEEP officials laid out the process for testing the soil and water at the Powder Farm in order to create a plan for remediation that — once completed — would allow for the possibility of opening the land to the public.
Since I was a small child, I have thought about the lack of access to open space in the Newhall community. Southern Hamden is, for the most part, overdeveloped with the exception of a few spots of green spaces. There are just a few places where someone could sit under a tree and get respite from the sun.
But what if there was a 102.5‑acre oasis sitting in our backyard? What if the long-dormant “Powder Farm” became a public space with walking paths?
This is what a group of Hamden community members is hoping to do with the help of the town government and state and local partners.
June 22, 2023
Hidden in the town of Hamden between Dixwell Avenue (more exactly the Farmington Canal Trail), Putnam Avenue, Leeder Hill Drive and Treadwell Street are 102.5 acres of extraordinary beauty long known as the Olin Powder Farm. More recently, it has acquired the name of Six Lakes for the ponds that it encompasses. Here, walking paths meander through hillocks covered with majestic pines and mature oaks or around shallow ponds teeming with waterfowl, fish, and turtles — an ecological treasure. Surrounding wetlands importantly connect to the Regional Water Authority’s Lake Whitney water supply.
That this treasure now lies in the middle of an urban fabric invites its transformation into an urban green space with public access. The Six Lakes Park Coalition was formed in 2019 and includes Conect, the Hamden Land Conservation Trust, residents of the Newhall neighborhood and the nonprofit environmental protection organization Save the Sound.
Why wasn’t Six Lakes turned into a public open space area long ago? The answer: industrial pollution. In the late 1800s the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. purchased the land, building ammunition bunkers and paving paths, the remnants of which are still found on the site today. In 1931 the Olin Corp. purchased Winchester and used the land for munitions testing and storing gunpowder during World War II, hence the name “Olin Powder Farm.” Olin disposed of munitions debris and chemicals on the site until the 1960s. Enter the Hamden Land Conservation Trust, formed in 1969 with an interest in making Olin Powder Farm a public open space. The land trust led annual public walks on the property until 2013; since then, the property has been totally closed to the public.
In 1986, Olin Corp. agreed to clean up the contamination, signing a consent order with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Over the next few years Olin completed a small portion of the cleanup and submitted a report to DEEP. Remediation efforts then stalled and ground to a halt.
Attention to the property was renewed when Hamden Legislative Council member Justin Farmer raised the issue with former Save the Sound President Curt Johnson. Here’s what Farmer has to say about the property: “Since I was a small child, I have thought about the lack of access to open space in the Newhall community. Southern Hamden is, for the most part, overdeveloped with the exception of a few spots of green spaces. There are just a few places where someone could sit under a tree and get respite from the sun, but what if there was a 102.5-acre oasis sitting in our backyard? What if the long-dormant “Powder Farm” became a public space with walking paths? This is what a group of Hamden community members is hoping to do with the help of the town government and state and local partners.”
In 2019, Save the Sound convened a group of interested residents, and formed the Steering Committee, which formally requested that DEEP turn its attention to the property. Since then, DEEP has ordered a new and up-to-date investigation. But take note: an end use for the 102.5 acres must be determined before the actual remediation can begin. So now is the community’s moment to make its wishes known. What kind of green space does the community want?
In 2004, the Hamden Land Conservation Trust invited the Yale School of Forestry to conduct a study and report on possible options; that study is available on the Coalition’s website: at http://www.sixlakespark.org under Resources. The study recommended clean up to the level of passive recreation.
The designation of passive recreation would preserve the ecological uniqueness of the site and the protection of the wetlands feeding into the RWA regional water supply.
Trails within the park could integrate easily into a broader system of greenways: the regional Farmington Canal Trail (a trail exit already exists at the southwest corner of the Olin property) and the Mill River Watershed Trail’s proposed extension.
Providing public access to the Six Lakes parcel would give residents in the Newhall neighborhood an easily accessible place to engage with nature. Studies have shown that interacting with nature can be beneficial in many ways. Green space provides opportunities for recreation and fitness. According to the International Journal of Environmental Studies and Public Health, there is evidence that exposure to nature improves cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, physical activity, and sleep. Results from experimental studies provide evidence of protective effects of exposure to natural environments on mental health outcomes. In addition, green space with public access at the site offers opportunities for outdoor education and the study of ecology, wetlands and watersheds.
As Farmer has observed, “Olin has the opportunity to be a champion to the Newhall community by providing the rarest asset to this community – public open space.” But that outcome is by no means assured. It will take community members expressing their wish that the property be remediated to the standard of passive recreation to ensure that public access at this unique property provides the greatest benefit to area residents. The Steering Committee of the Six Lakes Coalition, Town of Hamden, and DEEP invite all interested parties to an informationa
l meeting on Thursday, June 29, 6-8:30 pm at Keefe Center, 11 Pine St., Hamden, Connecticut.
Elizabeth L. Langhorne is a board member of the Hamden Land Conservation Trust.
Elizabeth L. Langhorne
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.”
Hamden environmental groups and Newhall neighborhood leaders are renewing a push for the state to force Olin Corporation to clean up, remediate and open a 102.5‑acre forest and wetlands site so that residents can finally enjoy the closed-off land.
That site of contention, which sits in the heart of Southern Hamden, nestled between the Dixwell Avenue shops to the west and the Newhallville neighborhood to the south, is called the Olin Powder Farm.
It includes over 100 acres of meandering paths through mature oaks, hickories, and pines, and ponds teeming with aquatic life.
And it has been privately owned and fenced off from the public since the late 1880s.
A coalition led by Save The Sound, CONECT, and the Hamden Land Conservation Trust is petitioning for Commissioner Katie Dykes of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to prioritize “the environmental cleanup and remediation of the Olin Powder Farm in southern Hamden and issue a new remediation order for the Olin Corporation.”