‘Our happy place’: Middletown Highland Pond dam removal project met with backlash

The Middletown Highland Pond dam removal project has been met with some backlash from residents.

The Middletown Highland Pond dam removal project has been met with some backlash from residents.

Hannah Docter-Loeb / For Hearst Connecticut Media

MIDDLETOWN — Dams are an important water supply and, in some cases, energy supply, however, they also restrict river function and damage the surrounding ecosystems.

Because of this, many municipalities across the country are removing dams and Middletown’s Highland Pond Dam may soon be next.

The 12-foot dam was constructed in 1875 for irrigation, creating Highland Pond. The land has had many different proprietors, but, in 2002, the Audubon Society gave it to the Middlesex Land Trust.

Since then, in accordance with its mission to preserve natural open space, the land trust has been responsible for the conservation and maintenance of the dam. However, over the years, the group has realized that the dam is a financial burden and liability.

According to members of the land trust, although there is some money donated and set aside for the dam, much of it has gone to inspections and constant monitoring, and it is not enough to maintain the dam, especially in the case of the emergency. It is also unrestricted, meaning it can be used for other projects, such as enhancing the nature preserve more generally.

As a registered dam, the state mandates a number of engineering studies to ensure it is up to standards. These studies have revealed that the dam is classified as a Class B, or significant hazard. If the structure were to fail, it would cause major property damage downstream.

Stuart Winquist, chairman of the land trust, said one of the biggest worries is exposure and the liability of the dam. “There are maintenance costs, but also, if it were to fail, we would have responsibility for the downstream damage. When we acquired the dam originally, people weren’t thinking that far ahead.”

In June 2021, the land trust contracted Biohabitats to conduct field studies and develop a potential plan for dam removal and renovation. Although liability and finances are a concern, land trust members emphasized that it’s not all about cost. More importantly, they are devoted to restoring the local ecosystem.

“There are two motivations to this. One is to eliminate a problem, which is the dam,” explained Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist and project technical advisor. “But the other is to do environmental and ecological restoration. What we have is a flawed artificial system that has a bunch of invasive noninvasive species on it … it’s about removing a problem and doing positive ecological restoration.”

In order to move forward with the project, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection must approve the land trust’s permit application, which can take many months. It must also secure a grant to further fund the dam removal.

Community reaction

Many neighbors, however, are unhappy about the proposed plan. Lisa Davis, who was enchanted by the pond long before she even moved to the area, created a petition to oppose its removal. Although she understands the environmental benefits, she noted the importance of the space to the local community.

“I was aware of the whole issue of dam removal and expected this kind of thing might come to pass, because I’ve seen many specials about it, and I’m aware of the issues of fish needing to go upstream and the problems with overindustrialized northeast,” Davis said.

“I just hoped that our little pond and our comparatively little dam would maybe escape all of that, and we’d get to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the expanse of water. Having an open water area is visually important to people and to certain types of wildlife,” Davis added.

While a petition cannot stop the removal, neighbors can request a public hearing with DEEP after the permit application is filed. Davis is hoping to do so.

Chris Brandt, who lives in the area, noted the pond is the main reason he and his wife moved to the neighborhood. As he explained, the pond has provided solace for his family over the years, and he is very upset at the idea of it being altered.

“It affects me emotionally,” he said “Every single penny I have goes into [my home] to make it better for my kids and to make a good life for my kids, and they want to take that view away from us. We’ve skated on that pond, we’ve fished on that pond, we’ve canoed on that pond.

“That’s our happy place and they want to take it away and that’s not right. We bought that place because it was there. I understand it’s not our property but that’s why we bought it,” Brandt added.

Concerns are ‘miscommunication’

Gephard acknowledged neighbor’s concerns but emphasized that he believes there is some miscommunication about what exactly the project will be doing.

“People have gotten used to this,” he said. “People who have lived there a long time, the pond predates them. That’s the status quo they’ve become used to, and people equate the current situation with nature. A lot of what I’ve seen on the petition and other places they’re saying ‘the land trust is destroying nature.’ That’s not true. What the land trust is doing is converting. It’s a nature conversion.”

The group working on the project has had two community presentations in April 2021 and April of this year -- to address concerns.

“We understand and that’s why we think community outreach presentations are so valuable,” said Sally Harold, the project manager who works for the river restoration consulting firm RiverWork. “People have a lot of myths that if a dam is removed, there will no longer be flow, that the pond will somehow disappear. They will be faced with this basin that will be stinky mudflats forever. Or the dam is serving to control floods right now, and if we remove the dam, there’s going to be more flooding.”

Davis regards the pond as a central feature of the historic Highland District and an important water source in the case of emergency fires. She is still hoping to find ways to avoid the removal.

“Biohabitats and the land trust did paint a picture of the pond as very unhealthy, and if it was restored, it would be this clean running stream and so on,” she said. “I certainly hope that if it goes through, that that is what happen ... but I think it’s not going to be as rosy as they paint it.”

In addition to talking to DEEP representatives, she has reached out to the Common Council to see if the city would potentially be interested in acquiring the property and assume liability of the pond.

“I’m trying not to be adversarial about it, I just want to see if there are some solutions,” she said.

For information on the project, visit biohabitats.com.