Ash Creek Victory Party on July 18

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Members of the Ash Creek Conservation Association gathered at Harborview Market on July 18, 2009 to celebrate their latest victory in protecting the Ash Creek tidal estuary.

Gail Robinson, President of the Ash Creek Conservation Association delivered the following words of thanks to those who contributed to this latest accomplishment:

First of all, on behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank all of you, our members, for your enthusiastic support of our efforts to protect the Ash Creek tidal estuary. You’ve given a lot of your time, effort and money over the years and now we are now reaping the benefits.

Conservation attempts were made with regard to Ash Creek via the first Ash Creek Association on Black Rock (1967-1987). At that time there were not a lot of laws to protect the wetlands. A number of neighbors banded together to protect Ash Creek from hunting, landfill and to create a wildlife sanctuary out of Ash Creek, which was considered laughable at the time as it was a dumping ground for old cars, tires, and the like. The first Ash Creek clean up pulled out 28 tons of trash from Ash Creek.

Just like us, they fought legal battles to protect Ash Creek and worked closely with Connecticut Audubon and the Connecticut Conservation Association. Without this 20 year effort from these environmental pioneers, we would not have the Ash Creek that exists today.

Ash Creek is one of the last healthy tidal estuaries in an urban environment in the United States. It has been self-restoring itself for the past 30 years. During that time it has become a wildlife sanctuary (not an officially designated one) for nesting and migratory birds, shellfish, and fin fish. It is one of the few remaining stopover points for migratory shorebirds in Connecticut. The number of stopover spots has been reduced by development in tidal estuaries until only about 15 of them remain. This is the only stopover between Norwalk and Stratford.

Ash Creek is also prized for its shallow oyster bed. It is a precious resource for seed oysters and all of the lower part of Ash Creek is considered a natural shellfish bed protected by the Bureau of Aquaculture. Oysters have a high mortality rate and are easily smothered by silt stirred up by powerboats.

Our victory today is two-fold, we had a build-out scenario of 27 docks in Ash Creek and our goal was to stop the docks. One permanent and one temporary dock have been built, but the DEP denied the third dock, the Toner dock based upon our latest legal battle. More importantly, our brilliant legal counsel, Barry Hawkins, figured out a legal strategy that required the DEP to issue a ruling on its own authority to control the use of docks. The DEP ruled in our favor and decided that it did have the authority to consider the purpose the dock was intended for, not just the structure itself, in determining whether to allow docks to be built.

What this means is that since powerboats are so destructive to shallow tidal estuaries, any dock built for the purpose of housing or mooring a powerboat will likely be denied by the DEP from this point forward. Most docks are built to house or moor powerboats, so we may never see a dock built in Ash Creek again! Furthermore, this ruling applies throughout Connecticut, so we have effectively protected all the other tidal estuaries.

The DEP has actually invited us to participate in the drafting of new dock regulations. Andre Ruellan, Donna Curran and myself will attend a meeting with the DEP on Monday. These revisions grew out of a workshop in 2007 on Managing Docks and Piers which was attended by federal and state regulatory staff and in which we presented a white paper that the rights of the public trust as we felt the balance had swung too far to the side of the riparian rights of waterfront landowners.

We have gained the respect of the DEP with our ability to turn out large numbers at public hearings and through our fact-based approach to protecting the environment. The DEP also saw us in action in successfully fighting two large utility companies in preventing the utility bridge across Ash Creek in 2006. That was no small victory and we celebrated our success right here – just two and a half years ago!

Getting back to the current victory, we know that Toner may appeal the DEP ruling, but he has to appeal to the DEP Commissioner, who rarely rules against the decision of the Hearing Officer. We could have waited until the final decision was announced to celebrate, but stopping the Toner dock is only a small part of our victory. The ruling that extends DEP authority to the use of docks is the true victory and that will stand regards of the final decision on the Toner dock.

I want to take a minute to thank our Board of Directors, who have been very involved over the years in these dock battles – special thanks to Andre Ruellan, who has attended every hearing in Hartford with me and is my partner in crime – he’s the one who first brought Ganim’s dock to my attention and persistently asked me what I was going to do about it. Six years later here we are, Andre. Thank you.

I also want to thank Kraig Steffen, who is our Vice President and has a great depth of knowledge about the Ash Creek ecosystem. Kraig educates us at every Board meeting and our members at special events and workshops. Thank you, Kraig.

I also want to thank Roger Ludwig, who also has a very deep knowledge about the Ash Creek ecosystem and has spearheaded the restoration of the St. Mary’s sand spit by planting 65,000 plugs of beach grass.

I also want to thank Ed Piquette, Mary Erkan, Donna Curran, Kristine DeMarco, and John Gibson. Each of them has brought expertise, connections, great ideas, and valuable contributions to our organization through their work on our Board of Directors.

I have one more Board member to thank, but before I do, I just want to thank Milan Bull of Connecticut Audubon for his testimony at the hearings and leading so many of our events. I also want to thank Michael Aurelia and Bill Urban, of the CT Conservation Association for their guidance and support from day one.

Now I want to thank one of our Board Members, Lilyan Hawkins, for her wifely arm-twisting in getting her husband, Barry Hawkins to represent us as our legal counsel. Barry’s firm, Shipman and Goodwin, provided legal services for us pro-bono. Shipman and Goodwin is one of the most highly regarded law firms in the state of Connecticut and suffice it to say that we could never afford his fees if he had charged us. Barry crafted a brilliant legal strategy that challenged the DEP with regards to its own power. And won! Thank you Barry!

I want to also thank Allison Baker, who also works for Shipman and Goodwin and worked with Barry on this case. Thank you, Allison.

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