West Rock Ridge State Park, currently over 1700 acres, is located in four towns – Hamden, Bethany, Woodbridge, and New Haven. It is now the second largest park in CT, and the only wilderness park located near a major city. Its origins make it truly a “people’s park.” The efforts of many, many people state and local officials and ordinary citizens from the four towns brought this park back from the brink of development. At each stage of the park’s history, it has been citizens that worked to preserve the park. Many of the Association’s members have been involved since the beginning. Their collective memories go back 40+ years and they have been working tirelessly to preserve the park.
Connecticut has this great park because some 40-odd years ago, a group of citizens realized what a treasure West Rock Ridge was, and they took the initiative to persuade others of the importance of preserving this land, so that we today, as well as future generations, could continue to enjoy that treasured land.
History of the Park
The park began as a city park in 1826, when Elijah Thompson donated 50 acres to the City of New Haven. In 1927, Governor Simeon Baldwin donated over $100,000 to the New Haven Park Commission, leading to acquisition of a large portion of the ridge and construction of Baldwin Drive in the 1930’s.
In 1962, the State of Connecticut endorsed the need for open spaces preservation. In 1975, the State legislature unanimously created West Rock Ridge State Park and established the boundaries of the larger Conservation Area.
New Haven’s city park, which had grown to more than 600 acres, was transferred to the State in 1982, and the State has continued to acquire parcels within the WRR conservation area over the years, for a total now of over 1700 acres.
The Park Association’s Role
The recent history of the park is a page out of the textbook of public activism. The transition from city park to the current state park required the tireless work of many people. It began as a grassroots effort to stop development on the ridge. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the pressures on the green spaces and summit of the ridge were enormous.
It was the transmission towers that got people’s attention. In 1964, when the pressure was really turned up to high by the first of the tower applications, efforts to save the ridge were at a serious disadvantage. There were no formal organized groups, and each town was on its own. If a tower was defeated in one town, companies would move up the ridge to the next town, hoping to find less resistance.
People began meeting, making phone calls and building support in the mayors’ offices and the local town councils. The West Rock Ridge Study Committee, a citizen conservation group formed in 1968 after local zoning fights to protect the ridge from the blight of tall TV towers (inc. a 1,000-footer) and other development.
The group subsequently organized the four-town West Rock Ridge Park Association on Jan. 23, 1974 to provide a more formal structure to achieve its goal and unify the ridge into a protectable entity.
The Association helped write the legislation that created the park, delineated the park’s possible future boundaries by creating the West Rock Ridge Conservation Area, and created the mechanism for the state to acquire lands for the park within that conservation zone. After three annual attempts – and major efforts to organize local citizen and official support – the bill was finally passed unanimously by the General Assembly. It was opposed by developers, however, and vetoed by former Governor Ella Grasso. The legislature subsequently overrode her veto unanimously and with the help of former Cheshire State Representative Richard Dice, Senator Joseph Lieberman and former State Representative Larry DeNardis, the park finally became a reality on July 21, 1975.
The larger West Rock Ridge Conservation Area, established in the original legislation, authorizes the state to acquire land within an area defined by the nearest streets to the ridge in Bethany, Hamden, New Haven and Woodbridge. The creation of the park in 1975 was just the beginning. The actual land acquisition has been an ongoing effort. There are many areas of the conservation area that appear to be park land when in fact they are inholdings. The Park Association continues to work to ensure that development does not undo the accomplishments of prior generations in preserving the park conservation area.
West Rock Ridge is the only park in New England that requires the state DEEP to consult with a citizens’ advisory council on actions proposed within the park boundary. The West Rock Ridge State Park Advisory Council, set up by the park legislation, consists of three representatives from each of the four towns that share the ridge (one each from the planning and zoning, conservation and chief executive board). The governor appoints three additional members at large. The chair is the DEEP commissioner.
The Park Association predates the Council, and its membership is open to the general public. The Association’s officers and members represent the four towns; the Association is complementary to the Council, and there is overlapping membership and directors. Current president of the Park Association is Theodore B. (Ted) Lynn of Hamden. Dr. William Doheny served in the post for more than 30 years.
The Association organizes bird walks and nature walks; publishes a semi-annual newsletter with articles on the park’s history, wildlife, and current activities; maintains trails within the park; advocates with state legislators; and sponsors presentations open to the public on topics of interest related to the park, such as the Old Leatherman, reptiles, wolves, and owls and birds of prey. New members and volunteers are always welcome; volunteer activities vary, according to functions and projects. Volunteers are needed for trail maintenance, legislative contacts, newsletter, programs, trip and activity planning. Contact person is Ted Lynn, 203-281-7089, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Importance of West Rock Ridge State Park
Activities enjoyed in the park include: hiking, picnicking, fishing, non-motorized boating, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, photography, nature study, birdwatching, cross-country skiing, paragliding. Because the Park has many unique features and wildlife, scientists from Yale, SCSU, and UCONN conduct research studies in the park. Hamden High School students explored the Park in their “Literature in the Outdoors” class, and included the results of their studies in The Hiker’s Guide to Hamden. New Haven school children in Solar Youth’s environmental program regularly utilize the Park for their studies.
Among the important landmarks in the Park are Judges Cave, Regicide Drive to the scenic South Overlook, Baldwin Drive (non-motorized access), and Lake Wintergreen. In addition, the Park has many hiking trails, spectacular views, and many opportunities to enjoy nature and wildlife.
These are some of the more spectacular things that make WRR park unique:
- The park has been studied by the scientific community for over 100 years. Studies have been conducted by Yale, SCSU and UCONN . The park, therefore, represents a living storehouse of continuous information on the changing environment of the area going back to the 19th century. Many of the studies are still ongoing.
- According to the DEP publications, WRRSP has the 2nd highest concentration of rare and endangered species of any park in the state.
- Extraordinary biodiversity of plants and animals from prickly pear cactuses to 230 species of birds and the highest percentage of breeding birds of any park in the state. West Rock’s unique location –its high altitude in the central lowlands and its proximity to both salt and fresh water – result in an optimal environment for biodiversity. Many species of plants and animals reach the northern or southern limits of their ranges..
- Particularly exciting is the fact that since 1999, Peregrine Falcons have been seen nesting and attempting to breed on the ridge. It was in 1940 that PF were last observed breeding on cliffs in CT.
Connecticut has this park because ordinary citizens cared about the land and the future, they stood up for what was important, and they preserved lands for everyone to enjoy. The Park Association continues that essential work, carries on that legacy, and ensures that the vision is kept alive.
To quote from Special Act 75-80 B A “The general assembly finds that the West Rock Ridge and surrounding lands possess unique scenic, ecological, scientific and historical value contributing to public enjoyment, inspiration and scientific study, that it is in the public interest that the provisions of this act be adopted to preserve such values, to provide active and passive recreational facilities and to prevent deterioration of the natural and traditional beauty of the area for the enjoyment of present and future generations of Connecticut citizens.”