In 1973, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation allowing the establishment of the Connecticut River Gateway Commission, a state-local compact, for the protection of the Lower Connecticut River Valley. Then, as now, this valley was widely recognized as one of the most important natural, recreational and scenic areas of the State. One year later, in July 1974, the Commission became operational with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection , two regional planning agencies and all eight eligible towns participating.
The Gateway Conservation Zone, which is the geographic focus of the Commission's activities, is some thirty miles in length and includes those portions of the eight member towns (Chester, Deep River, East Haddam, Essex, Haddam, Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook) lying within view of the river. In recent years, it has become an area of interest for a number of other environmental organizations as well. The Nature Conservancy has designated the Connecticut River Tidelands as one of its forty Last Great Places; in the Western Hemisphere; the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has obtained the recognition of the river's tidelands as "internationally significant" wetlands under the terms of the international Ramsar Treaty; the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior has publicly recognized the lower Connecticut River valley as "one of the most important ecological landscapes" in the United States, and in 1999, the River was designated as one of American Heritage River by the President of the United States. Finally, the Connecticut River has been designated as the Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Preserve by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The Valley Railroad and Gillette's Castle, two of the State's major tourist attractions, are located in the lower Connecticut River Valley. Their continued attraction is very much dependent upon the maintenance of the valley's scenic and environmental quality. The mission of this Commission, given to it by the Connecticut General Assembly some four decades ago, is to "preserve the unique scenic, ecological, scientific and historic values of the lower Connecticut River valley for the enjoyment of present and future generations of Connecticut citizens." The cooperation and support of the State is crucial to the success of this mission and this Commission greatly appreciates the support of the General Assembly in carrying it out.
While other organizations have concerned themselves with the preservation of endangered species and habitats in the valley, this Commission has concentrated its attention on the protection of key upland tracts that contribute to the valley's scenic qualities. Since its inception, the Commission has been instrumental in protecting over one thousand acres of land through gifts or purchase of scenic easements, development rights and fee simple titles. These are located in four different towns, ranging from the estuarine marshes in Old Lyme to the heights of Mount Tom in East Haddam and include:
While the value of the private gifts is unknown, but very substantial, the total of the purchased fees and easements outlined above adds up to well over $2,000,000 and represents a major investment of both public and private funds in the future of the Valley.
Another significant role given to the Commission by the 1973 enabling legislation is the establishment of certain minimum zoning standards for height, setback, lot coverage and the like which the member towns are expected to establish and enforce within the Gateway Conservation Zone for the benefit of the Lower Valley scene. The Commission meets regularly to review and act on zone changes and zoning board of appeals applications affecting land within the Conservation Zone referred to it by local boards and commissions as required by statute. No zone change can become effective without the Commission's approval.
Issues of concern in the past year have included the construction of numerous large "trophy houses " along the riverfront and tree cutting to provide residents with water views. Both of these activities can have a significant impact on the riverscape. The damage done by the woolly adelgid infestation to many of the large hemlock stands along the river has also had considerable visual impact.
Until 1991, the State suspported the work of the Commission with a modest annual allocation of funds for administrative purposes. In 1983, as a result of an environmental law suit that involved Northeast Utilities, the Gateway Commission was chosen to become the beneficiary of a significant amount of money that continues to serve as their financial resource today. The Commission's operating funds, the funds they use to issue grants to organizations for land acquisition and all other expenses come from the revenue stream created by those financial resources. As a result of that award, the legislature in 1992 eliminated the state support from the State's budget. The Gateway Commission has been on its own ever since.