Happy Birthday, Sidney Van Zandt - Our Conservation Queen

Stroll out to Bluff Point in Groton, one of Connecticut’s most spectacular shoreline treasures – at 800 acres it comprises the largest undeveloped peninsula between New York and Cape Cod – and imagine instead of breathtaking views of Fishers Island Sound a Coney Island-style amusement park cluttered the beach, with hot dog stands, Ferris wheels, bathhouses and a paved access road leading to a 4,000-car parking lot.

Next, amble to the adjoining Haley Farm and picture what the stone walls, rolling fields and hiking paths overlooking Palmer Cove would look like dotted with duplex houses.

Repeat this scenario at the Merritt Family Forest, the Sheep Farm, Candlewood Ridge, the Avery Farm – all unspoiled parks spared from development, thanks to dedication and hard work over the years by visionary conservationists.

Though the cause has been a team effort, everybody involved would agree that much less would have been accomplished without the work of one woman, Sidney Van Zandt of Noank.

Today (Saturday, March 22), several hundred of her closest friends will help Sidney celebrate her 80th birthday at a party at Shennecossett Yacht Club in Groton, an occasion that not only will recognize her extraordinary contributions to land conservation in the region but also promises to highlight the many nautical adventures she and husband Sandy have shared.

Sidney got started by helping found the Groton Open Space Association in 1965 that fought a housing development proposed for Haley Farm in Groton and raised money so the state could buy the property for a park. She also served as co-chair of the Bluff Point Advisory Council that staved off various ill-considered development proposals and eventually drafted legislation that led to the creation of Connecticut’s first and only coastal preserve. On a personal note she nominated me to fill a vacancy on that board and I had the privilege to work with her and others on that cause.

Sidney also has been a member of the boards of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, the Governor’s Council of Environmental Quality, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Coastal Management Program, and the Mashantucket Land Trust (now called Avalonia Land Conservancy).

To simply say she served on these boards doesn’t adequately describe Sidney’s efforts. She attends meetings in Hartford; prepares voluminous reports, organizes letter-writing campaigns, makes countless phone calls to mayors, governors, senators … . She doesn’t give up or take no for an answer.

“Sidney is a pit bull,” her husband Sandy onced joked to me.

I had been a young reporter just out of college when I first met Sidney at a public hearing about a new road the town of Groton considered constructing – a so-called “east-west highway” that officials promised would ease traffic on Route 1 and open up a large section of town to new shopping centers and apartment complexes.

To my then-environmentally unaware sensibilities the idea at first seemed to make sense, but Sidney took me aside after the meeting and set me straight.

“Think of all the trees they’ll have to cut down,” she began. “And all that asphalt and concrete … What about all the animals that will be displaced? Do we really need more fast-food restaurants?”

Until then I’d never thought much about the impact such projects have on the outdoors, even though I enjoyed hiking, running, swimming and kayaking. I took it for granted that there would always be places for these activities.

Sidney helped me understand that there is continuous pressure to build, build, build – and once open space disappears it’s gone for good. At the same time she reminded me that all development is not evil. After all, we need stores, houses, apartments, factories, highways — we just don’t need them spread out in a sprawl from sea to shining sea.

Over the years we’ve become friends, and my wife, Lisa, and I have shared some of my happiest experiences with Sidney and Sandy – cross-country skiing in Vermont, rowing out to their boat moored off Noank with our then-infant son, Tom, or simply strolling through the woods together. They stopped by our house the other day for our annual maple syrup party and while a crackling fire boiled sap we reminisced about various fun times on land and sea.

I’ve always admired Sid and Sandy’s sense of adventure — they built a 39′ steel sailing vessel in 1981 and spent the next 14 years sailing 95,000 miles, including four transatlantic passages and a global circumnavigation. If Sidney is the one person you want on board to organize a campaign to create a new park, Sandy is the guy you want at the helm in a force 10 gale.

Like all their friends I’m delighted the Van Zandts are back on terra firma today so we can celebrate this happy occasion.

Happy birthday, Sid, and thanks for helping me perceive the wisdom of of Henry David Thoreau:

“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

 

 

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