OPINION: Wallingford struggles with proposed development of rare sand plain

OPINION: Wallingford struggles with proposed development of rare sand plain

I grew up in a home situated along George Washington’s retreat route from the battles in New York, so my interest is typically drawn when I read about his travels. Our first president commands respect, which has a lot to do with the honor and dignity we still associate with the role, which is one of the reasons many find the blunt and often crude approach of the current occupier of the Oval Office unnerving.

In any case, state Rep. Mary Mushinsky was savvy to bring up Washington in her recent opinion piece about the unique sand plains in Wallingford. Washington, she noted, was among the first to notice them as he traveled from New Haven to Hartford. “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,” wrote Mushinsky, who represents Wallingford.

The proposed development of the sand plains in Wallingford is the latest in a familiar struggle between the interests of environmental conservation and doing business. It’s like the struggle between the desire to preserve the pristine beauty of a place like Chauncey Peak against the interest of gathering material needed to build a home or office.

Years ago I learned about vernal pools, which you can see now if it’s not so freezing to keep you indoors. Here one season, gone the next, they provide essential habitat for species like the spotted salamander and the box turtle.

Now I’m reading about the dark-bellied tiger beetle and the northern dusk singing cicada. Those are among nine species listed by the state as endangered, threatened or of special concern, which brings us back to the property Washington found so interesting.

The 25-acre site contains the sand barren and a dry acidic forest. It’s owned by Allnex USA, which would like to sell it to a developer, Wallingford Industrial Improvement Co. LLC, which would like to excavate, process and sell the sand on the site and also build a warehouse and office building there.

From what I gather. doing so would spell worse than trouble for the dark-bellied tiger beetle and the northern dusk singing cicada. As an expert told the Record-Journal, excavating the sand from the site would “result in the permanent extirpation of a number of these rare species in Connecticut.”

Laura Saucier, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, says 95 percent of the sand plain habitat in Connecticut has already been lost, either to development or to what she called “vegetative succession.” How responsible should Wallingford be for what’s left?

It’s a good question, and not an easy one to answer.

Making it less easy has been the leadership of the mayor, which has been less like Washington and more like a blunt imperialist. Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. said recently the developer’s study, which Dickinson had not read, said the area’s sand barren and dry acidic forest habitats are “no longer viable.” The uniqueness, he said, “no longer exists.”

More than a few take issue with this, including the DEEP, which warned of the environmental impact. “This habitat type hosts unique plant and animal communities which, due to habitat loss, are among the most imperiled in the state,” said Saucier.

The town’s environmental planner also said she was “very surprised” by Dickinson’s remarks. Then she said something so sensible it’s a wonder it had to be said, which was that “it would be best to gather all sources, especially expert sources on this, and gather many different reports and look at the big picture.”

The big picture is what it’s all about. The Planning and Zoning Commission, which is considering the application on May 14, should consider the environmental concerns and the interests of conservation and take a look at the developer’s study Dickinson has been talking about.

There may be no stopping the interests of development, but people deserve to know what they’re giving up, because whether it’s a mountain, a sand plain or a species or whatever, what’s lost is lost and not coming back.

Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or jkurz@record-journal.com.