George Washington was one of the first visitors to notice and write about the distinctive sand barrens or sand plains that lined the Quinnipiac River Valley for 15 miles from New Haven to Meriden. He made these observations in his journal as he traveled from New Haven to Hartford, crossing the river either at Toelles Road, Wallingford, or Broadway, North Haven, according to North Haven historian Winifred Kotchian:
Monday 19, 1789 (Oct.) Left New-haven at 6 o’clock and arrived at Wallingford (13 miles) by half after 8 o’clock, where we breakfasted. In coming to it we passed through East (North) haven about midway after riding along the river of that name (the Quinnipiac was originally the East River) 6 miles, on which are extensive marshes now loaded with haystacks—the ride is very pleasant but the Road is sandy which it continues to be within a mile of the Tavern. This and about five miles of the road beyond-is all the sand we have met with on the journey. These Sandy lands afford but ordinary crops of Corn. The Lands (Stone being less) are in part enclosed with Posts and Rails.
Built of thick beds of sand that melting glaciers had deposited in the valley, the sand plains stood out to travelers like Washington because only certain widely-spaced flowers, grasses, scattered trees, associated insects and a few vertebrates such as Fowler’s toads lived on the sandy barrens. Settlers tried to farm the sand plains but soon abandoned them. The barrens were just too dry to support the colonists’ crops.
The sand barrens, a state-designated CT critical habitat, and the dry acidic woods, an adjacent critical habitat with specialized trees, are special because they have biodiversity very different from the rest of the state. Yet they have been mined for sand and heavily developed as they are flat and easy to build upon (no stones, as Washington himself noted). The remaining undeveloped acres are the last 5 percent of their kind.
Destruction has reduced sand barrens by 95 percent in our state and dry acidic woods are today found in only three towns in Connecticut. The Town of Wallingford recognized these special features as “Priority Areas of Open Space Interest” in the Wallingford Plan of Conservation and Development adopted in 2016. Despite this official recognition, the last undeveloped example of this landscape — 25 acres of it — is facing excavation and destruction in an application currently before the Wallingford Planning and Zoning Commission.
These critical habitat acres were also priority areas for conservation by CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), but until last year they appeared safe through ownership by Allnex USA, formerly Cytec Industries. DEEP used its dwindling funds to purchase other priority parcels.
Now Allnex USA is interested in selling land and the Town of Wallingford is eager for economic development. Instead of building on previously disturbed properties, the Town and developers are focused on a very rare, critical habitat. From their perspective the sand is valuable, the industrially-zoned parcel has good access to the highway, and the tax base will increase. But what a loss to the town, state and scientific community if this unusual habitat is destroyed forever!
Scientists have studied the sand barrens since 1903, when W. E. Britton published Vegetation of the North Haven Sandplains. In 1937 Charles Olmsted published Vegetation of Certain Sand Plains of Connecticut. In the 1970’s, Thomas Siccama of Yale University conducted research on the site. State DEEP scientists inventoried rare plants and animals for their 1998 report, Thirteen Most Imperiled Habitats in Connecticut.
Dr. Stephen Collins of SCSU took biology students, including me, to study the specially adapted plants and animals living on Amtrak’s part of the sand plains. DEEP scientists documented the northern dusk-singing cicada that lives in only one location in Connecticut: Allnex USA in Wallingford!
The developer and applicant have shown interest in protecting part of the parcel. This is a welcome development. Perhaps some of this rare habitat can still be saved and people can learn about the time, only 15,000 years ago, when Wallingford was covered by an ice sheet a mile thick that retreated to the north, shedding ice-cold meltwater and fine-grained sand through the Quinnipiac River Valley.
The unusual plants and animals living on this bed of sand tell the story of the great glacier for scientists, students and curious visitors like George Washington, who wrote about his travels on a sand plain located miles from the ocean.
Planning and Zoning will consider the application on May 14 at 7 p.m. in Wallingford Town Hall.
Mary Mushinsky is a state representative from Wallingford and executive director of River Advocates of South Central Connecticut.