A 64-acre nature preserve with hiking trails emerges from UConn’s former landfill.
North Hillside Road on the University of Connecticut campus is sometimes referred to by people in town as “the road to nowhere,” because it was once intended to connect to Route 44. (Why that hasn’t happened yet is a subject for another story.)
Today, the road seems to represent the journey to a much improved relationship between the University of Connecticut and the town of Mansfield.
For many years, the town – both its elected leaders and the general citizenry – butted heads with the university’s administration and board of trustees over the impact of UConn’s various activities on the surrounding town – from worries over water supply to the effect of the school’s food courts on local eateries.
This struggle was especially true when it came to UConn’s landfill – infamous for the toxic waste that had been dumped there for years. By its own admission, between 1966 to 1987 UConn used the landfill to dump such things as laboratory chemicals, solvents, pesticides and herbicides.
Battles over the landfill escalated during the now-defunct plan to create a professional-industrial park in that area, known as UCEPI Park (University of Connecticut Educational Properties, Inc.)
UCEPI’s developers wanted to excise the landfill from building plans in order to avoid the cost of clean-up and to present a more attractive package to potential park tenants.
Enter a grassroots group called Mansfield Common Ground – headed by Bruce Bellm, Richard Sherman and the late-Peter Newcomer – that brought to light the fact that the state Department of Environmental Protection had ordered the landfill to be closed and capped about 16 years earlier.
Public pressure was put on UConn and the DEP to enforce the order, and in 1998 the DEP issued a new order to develop a remediation plan and permanently cap the landfill.
Now, 10 years later, a great deal has changed.
UConn has shown an increasing awareness of its role in the larger community and has taken greater responsibility for its impact on the environment, changes remarked upon by a number of speakers at today’s dedication ceremony for what is now “the HEEP” (Hillside Environmental Education Park).
Once the landfill was capped, part of the area was paved over to create a 500-space parking lot (C-Lot). Another 64 acres was rescued and resurrected as the HEEP.
To create this nature preserve and system of trails required excavating and hauling away 40,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and sediment.
Careful study preceded and followed the excavation in order to develop plans for restoring the site, including recreating three wetlands areas.
UConn’s Landscape Design students created a phased-plan for the project, which now includes two miles of hiking trails that connect with Mansfield’s Shelter Falls Park bordered by Hunting Lodge and Birch Roads. (Prof. Kristin Schwab gave credit to one of her summer interns, Mary Fish, for suggesting the name of the HEEP.)
One witness to the UConn’s evolving “green” conscience is UConn’s Director of the Office of Environmental Policy, Richard Miller. Until now, he said, the landfill has been “an ever present reminder of past disputes with the town over environmental problems… This closes that chapter.”
UConn has gone well beyond the minimum requirements of the DEP order, he added, and the result is “a living laboratory.”
In the same vein, DEP Commissioner Regina McCarthy – who has worked closely with both UConn and the town – remarked, “I’ve sensed a change in the way UConn has dealt with issues,” and gave credit to UConn President Michael Hogan for his contributions to this shift in attitude.
“I very seldom say ‘celebrate” and ‘landfill’ in the same sentence,” she added, “but it’s really great that we changed an environmental challenge into something so inviting.”
State Rep. Denise Merrill also recalled that when she was first elected in 1993, “this landfill was the first big challenge… the issue had been going on for many years.”
Creating this nature preserve, however, “is the result of what can happen with UConn and the community working together,” she said.
And Mansfield Mayor Betsy Paterson said the preserve demonstrates an increasing openness on the part of UConn administration, and a sincere desire to work in partnership with the town.
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