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Group forms to help effort to protect Oswegatchie Hills

A newly formed environmental group has joined the effort to protect the Oswegatchie Hills from development, as well as monitor the quality of the Niantic River.

The group, Save the River, Save the Hills, has been organizing for the past four months, according to its president, Fred Grimsey, a Sierra Club member who has lived on Oswegatchie Road in Waterford for 37 years.

Grimsey said his organization would work with the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Preserve, an East Lyme-based group. He said that together they would seek to provide East Lyme and state Department of Environmental Protection officials with as much information as possible on potential threats to the river.

Those seeking to protect the Hills' 781 acres have staved off a number of development challenges in the past decade. The most recent threat came from Landmark Development of Middletown, which proposed building an 18-hole golf course, condominiums, a senior housing project and an executive golf course there.

Landmark Development's principal owner, Glenn Russo, who owns property in the Hills, next attempted to apply for an affordable housing permit. He planned to build 894 housing units, 270 of which would have been set aside for households with earnings of between 60 and 80 percent of the community's average household earnings.

In the midst of negotiations with First Selectman Wayne L. Fraser, Russo agreed to withdraw the application and to observe a “30-day cooling off period.” When the period ended in mid-March, Russo quietly pulled his application from the table. Grimsey said that the town and the DEP are working toward the state purchasing much of the 781 acres.

“Our organization has two main goals,” Grimsey said. “We want to advocate and encourage the acquisition of the Oswegatchie Hills. We also want to organize and operate a volunteer water-quality monitoring program for the Niantic River.”

Grimsey said his group has a boat that it will use to collect water samples from the river and make observations. The group hopes to raise funds to purchase equipment to conduct more sophisticated tests.

“I've lived on the river for 37 years,” Grimsey said. “I've seen it change from a beautiful pristine body of water to something that is marginally polluted. The state doesn't have the resources, so we have to help protect our own wetlands. We plan to monitor the entire watershed.”

Barbara Eberle is the group's vice president. Stephen Heller is its treasurer and Virginia Birdsall its corresponding secretary. The group has yet to name a recording secretary. Grimsey said about 50 people have paid the $20 membership fee, and more than 100 others have shown an interest in joining.
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