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It will soon be the 10th time that supporters of an undeveloped Oswegatchie Hills parade on the bucolic Niantic River to celebrate the natural beauty of the stretch and to draw attention to a legal battle that hasn't gone away.
"We want to keep this last undeveloped and unprotected waterfront mile of the Hills wild and keep the Niantic River clean," says Deb Moshier-Dunn, vice president of Save the River-Save the Hills, Inc. (STR-STH). The grassroots nonprofit environmental organization sprang up more than 12 years ago in the face of proposed residential housing on 230 acres of the Hills by Landmark Development Group.
"That's why we have a free event like our kayak regatta each year in front of the Hills."
The land is contiguous to the 420-acre Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, created by a private/public partnership of the Town of East Lyme and the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve. FOHNP, the sister organization to STR-STH, is a nonprofit volunteer organization also funded by member contributions. The preserve, a pristine and diverse habitat of rugged forest, ponds, streams and rock formations that also serve to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Niantic River, was opened in 2007. It's the ultimate goal of both volunteer groups to get all 700 acres of the Hills into protected status.
The developer has made five development applications since 2001. The Town of East Lyme Zoning Commission has denied all of them, and the developer has appealed each denial in court. Two different judges turned down the first two appeals on environmental grounds. The court sent the third appeal, filed in 2005, which included affordable housing units, back to the town's zoning board for reconsideration because it had denied the proposal for environmental reasons too early in the review process.
Subsequent appeals are on hold pending resolution of the third appeal. The courts have given both STR-STH and FOHNP legal intervener status on environmental grounds in the cases.
"Many people in the region think the development proposals have gone away and the land is protected," says Moshier-Dunn, who was surprised by the questions she got at STR-STH's display at East Lyme Day in July. "People assume that because the town won the first two appeals, it's over. It's not, and the developer's attorney says another development application is imminent."
Last fall, East Lyme's Water-Sewer Commission turned down the developer's request for 118,000 gallons per day of sewer capacity for its section of the Oswegatchie Hills. Landmark has appealed that decision, too, so the parties are back in court. A new judge recently determined that STR-STH and FONPH could be interveners for environmental reasons in this case, too.
"We feel that the health of the Niantic River would be better protected if pre-existing communities in the watershed, such as Saunders Point, get any excess capacity for sewer first," Moshier-Dunn says.
What few people realize is that a small band of concerned environmentalists and residents, all volunteers, have been following these proposals, appeals and lawsuits over the years and, in the case of STR-STH, raising a legal defense fund to pay for court representation.
Organizers hold the kayak regatta every August to enjoy the river and to get more people involved in and aware of the ongoing standoff. Despite the reference to kayaks, Moshier-Dunn encourages people to show up on any non-motorized vessel, including canoes and stand-up paddleboards, and to have an appropriate personal flotation devise for every participant. Motor boats also are welcome if they arrive at the event early and anchor nearby.
Paddlers should plan to rally a quarter-mile north of Sandy Point at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24, (Sunday, Aug. 25, is the rain date) and fall in line behind the Goshen Fire Boat, which will have its water spout at full spray, for the annual parade of solidarity up the Niantic, in front of the Hills. Prizes will be awarded for best decorated watercraft.
While most of the activities are on water, elected officials and dignitaries will speak from a balcony at Point Comfort and everyone will be entertained by the Denise and Tony Band. There will be free clam chowder and hot dogs, courtesy of Flanders Fish Market and The Dock Restaurant. The afternoon will be topped off by short kayak races starting at 1 p.m., and STR-STH members are eligible for a free drawing for donated items, including a new kayak and paddles.
Local businesses are getting into the act, too. Three Belles Marina in Smith Cove and Eastern Mountain Sports will put on kayak demos; both firms also have kayaks available for rental (advance reservations are recommended). Park and launch for free at Three Belles Marina, or launch at Cini Park, under the bridge in Niantic, for an all-day kayak experience. For more information, including rain date changes, follow STR-STH, Inc. on Facebook.
Hear more about protecting the Oswegatchie Hills and Niantic River on Suzanne's weekly radio show "CT Outdoors" this Tuesday, Aug. 13, from 12:30 to 1 p.m. on WLIS 1420 AM and WMRD 1150 AM or streaming online at www.wliswmrd.net.