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