Sidebar Middletown's Plan of Development

CHAPTER 10

THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT

Middletown is one of the largest, in terms of land area, of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities. Middletown has an area of 42.9 square miles. This 42.9 square miles includes, to mention a few, a highly urbanized Central Business District, flood plain, prime farm land and rugged, steep sloped, wooded areas. The highest peak above mean sea level is 907 feet at Mt. Higby and the lowest mean sea level is 15 feet at the Connecticut River. The majority of the land in Middletown is below 480 feet.

Middletown consists of flat marshlands at the river and then levels to rolling hills. The Connecticut River and its tributaries, the Sebethe or Mattabesset River, Coginchaug River and Sumner Brook are the principal waterways. The original city center lies on relatively level land, rising slowly westward from the river level to the Wesleyan campus. The land then falls off abruptly into the valley of the Mattabesset in the north and into that of Sumner Brook to the south. This natural topography serves to define and limit the area of the central district.

Along the westerly boundary, adjacent to Meriden the land is rugged and in some places reaches an elevation of nearly 900 feet. Easterly from this boundary the land becomes more gently rolling. The soils in much of the north and west sections of the city are generally of a medium to heavy character, with slow internal drainage. Some areas have poorly drained soils with clay or silt, although there are limited pockets of well-drained gravelly or sandy soils. Near the Mattabesset and Coginchaug Rivers there are extensive areas of alluvial soils, much of them subject to flooding.

Sumner Brook and its tributaries drain much of the south central area of the City. These streams rise near the Durham, Middlefield and Haddam lines and join south of the city center, where Sumner Brook flows into the Connecticut River. Soil conditions in this part of Middletown vary, but much of the area contains medium to heavy soils which require public sanitary sewerage, where development exceeds a low density.

There are, however, some limited areas with sandy or gravelly soils, but there are also pockets of poorly drained soils as well as of rocky and rugged land. The topography of most of the south central area is gently rolling, becoming more rugged near the city’s southern boundary. Middletown, by virtue of its physical characteristics, as mentioned above, is perhaps one of the most unique communities in Connecticut. Its diverse landscape and natural features provide many benefits, both physical and psychological, to the citizens of Middletown. For this reason, the following two goals have been adopted for this section of the Plan of Development on the Natural Environment:

GOALS

To maintain sufficient and carefully selected undeveloped areas so as to preserve the rural character of Middletown, to assist in carefully managing significant but fragile natural systems and to provide areas for passive recreational opportunities.

To provide for a healthy living environment by promoting clean air, reducing noise levels, ensuring clean water resources and properly managing hazardous materials and solid wastes.

Having discussed the physical characteristics of the landscape and the city’s goals in terms of this landscape it is now appropriate to discuss, in some detail, the different natural resource areas in the city and the valuable functions which they provide. The accompanying natural resource maps delineate those areas which, because of their soils, slopes and location in relation to other features, have been identified as “environmentally sensitive” and thus warranting special consideration in this Plan of Development. While the maps in this plan were manually produced, this plan does recognize that the “state of the art” in mapping techniques involves Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Ideally, as a later date, the maps in this chapter and the other maps in this plan will be incorporated into a computerized geographic information system.

INLAND WETLAND AREAS

The wetlands and the soils which underlie them, and the environmentally sensitive areas as shown on the Purcell maps are, in most cases, one and the same. The environmentally sensitive areas as designated in the Purcell Study of 1982 tend to encompass the vast majority of the wetland areas. But, the Purcell study may not cover the upland wetlands which are not in a flood hazard area. For this reason a soils based wetlands mapping should be undertaken. For years these areas were considered to be “swampland: whose only purpose was to generate mosquitoes and disease. The goal ws to fill and drain these areas in an attempt to create land with some value. But, the environmental movement of the 1970s changed the publics perception of these areas. It was discovered that these “wetlands” have valuable natural functions which were important to protect and preserve. For this reason, the Connecticut legislature adopted Chapter 440 of the Connecticut General Statutes “The Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Act”. This act regulates any activity within a wetland boundary. Wetland are classified as areas with soils defined as poorly drained, very poorly drained, alluvial and flood plain. The act also allows the municipality to oversee the permitting process, as Middletown chose to do by adopting inland wetlands regulations and creating an Inland Wetlands Agency.

Wetland functions can be grouped into three general categories. These include flood retention, floral and faunal habitat and ground water recharge. First, in terms of flood retention the wetlands surrounding streams and rivers act as a sponge absorbing flood waters and reducing the volume of water in the stream or river channel. Second, the wetlands serve as valuable habitat for both floral and faunal species, including many rare species. Lush vegetation and shrubs along the wetland edges represent a valuable source of food and cover to many wildlife species and their young. Also, the calm pools in the wetlands are spawning areas for many types of aquatic wildlife. Finally, wetlands which are not over hard pan soils, act as important recharge areas for the ground water supplies.

These functions, dampening the severity of flooding, floral and faunal habitat and groundwater recharge all assist in protecting the health, safety and welfare of Middletown residents. The value of Middletown’s wetlands is now well understood. Any activity in a Middletown wetland is now carefully scrutinized, to better understand the impacts of the proposed activity, by the Inland Wetlands Agency and concerned citizens.

GROUND WATER AQUIFERS AND PUBLIC WATER SUPPLY WATERSHEDS

Traditionally streams, ponds and reservoirs have supplied most of Connecticut’s and Middletown’s public water needs. And as such, the land surrounding these supplies, the watersheds are regulated in order to reduce possible water contamination from runoff. However, land available for new surface water reservoirs is scarce and increasingly expensive. Furthermore, many existing surface water supplies do not meet the turbidity standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The use of groundwater to meet the increasing water needs has many advantages over surface water. These are lower costs of development, fewer instances of bacterial and viral contamination, lower turbidity and less disturbance of the land surface. However, incidence of and discoveries of groundwater contamination are increasing and because groundwater generally moves very slowly contaminants may go undetected for some time. Even when discovered, it may not be possible to correct the situation and the potential of this groundwater supply is lost, in many instances forever. For this reason, it is essential that this groundwater be protected. Delineated on the natural resources map are the aquifer recharge zones. These are the areas identified in a “Guide to Groundwater and Aquifer Protection” prepared by MidState Regional Planning Agency.

These recharge zones are the primary areas, due to soil conditions, where rainwater and rainwater runoff infiltrate into the aquifers that contain the groundwater supplies. Protecting these recharge areas and the water they contain from contaminant intrusion is important for two reasons. First, groundwater protection is important to insure existing homes, currently relying on well water, of a clean water supply and, secondly, to insure a future water supply of adequate volume for the City of Middletown.

Zoning is the primary tool to protect these recharge areas. Since with zoning the use the land is put to, can be controlled and regulated, zoning can eliminate known ground water containments from these critical areas. Section 42 “Protection of Water Resources” of the Middletown Zoning Code protects, by eliminating particular contaminants, the aquifer recharge areas and the watersheds surrounding public surface water drinking supplies. In the future, this section and its mapping should be strengthened so that it conforms with the requirements mandated in Public Act 89-305 as amended be 90-275, “An Act Concerning Aquifer Protection Areas”. Additionally, any existing hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals in the aquifer recharge areas or the public water supply watersheds should be carefully managed and wherever possible eliminated.

THE CONNECTICUT RIVER AND ITS FLOOD PLAIN

The city is fortunate in that it has the Connecticut River composing one of its entire borders. The river and its associated flood plain area are perhaps the most significant and important natural resources found in Middletown. The primary function of the flood plain is the detention of floodwaters during the spring rains and snowmelt. The flood plain in itself is classic Connecticut River Valley flood plain. It is wide, low lying and for the most part wet marshland. This area, which is subject to frequent flooding, is also rich in species diversity. The second half of the flood plain is quite narrow and in places non-existent. The reduction in the flood plain in the lower reaches of the Middletown section of the river is due to a change in the geological makeup of the land surrounding the Connecticut Rive. The topography of the land adjacent to the river rises rapidly from approximately 50 feet above sea level at the intersection of River Road and Silvermine Road up to over 450 feet above sea level. The river filters into a stretch of narrow channel, known appropriately as “The Narrows”. It is at this point, where the steep slopes down to the river begin, that thousands of years ago a glacier jam created a massive natural dam. This natural dam caused water to back up and create a huge lake, which extended mid way through Massachusetts and out several miles to the east and west. It is the sediment from this lake that created the prime agricultural farmlands up and down the Connecticut River Valley, including those in Middletown.

The river has much to offer the residents of Middletown. Its banks, which create valuable edge habitat, represent a travel corridor, with ample food, water and cover, for wildlife, including the American Bald Eagle, white tail deer, raccoon and opossum to mention a few, and its waters are a spawning route for the Atlantic salmon and shad. While being important in these ways, the Planning and Zoning Commission feels the most important unrealized value of the river to the City of Middletown is in terms of its recreational and educational value.

‘The river and its banks in Middletown hold tremendous potential for fishing, boating, hiking, bird watching and possible some time in the future, swimming. High quality recreation along the river, will stimulate economic growth and prosperity for the city and in particular the Central Business District. But, the key to providing quality recreation which will stimulate economic growth is access. The city must strive to make the Connecticut River more accessible to its residents and tourists alike. River Road should be upgraded and along River Road the garbage should be removed. Parking and picnicking areas should be provided along with a small boat launch which will generate launch fees from out of town residents, Also, police patrols should be increased along the river, perhaps mounted police, and there should be a carefully designed pedestrian bridge over Route 9 to reintroduce the Harbor Park Area with the Central Business District.

For the most part, the flood plain area is protected from any further development. It is zoned Riverfront Recreation which has a limited number of uses. But, the Zoning Code does allow for some non-residential uses in the flood plain by special exception. These proposals should be very carefully scrutinized and where development is to be accommodated preference should be given to water oriented and/or dependent uses.

Finally, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Harbor Improvement Agency and the Conservation Commission should work cooperatively to undertake a detailed study of the Connecticut River Corridor. Using this study for guidance, the city should then do all possible, working with the state and non-profit organizations, to enhance the accessibility of the land along the Connecticut River.

OTHER RIVERS AND STREAMS

The Coginchaug, the Sebethe or Mattabesset and Sumner Brook are the three other major watercourses in Middletown. These are all tributaries of the Connecticut River. The majority of the land surrounding these flood plains is highly urbanized and this presents a need for innovative management strategies which address problems unique to urban river corridors. Other sections of these rivers are more rural in character, particularly Sumner Brook, and therefore there are other concerns which need to be addressed.

This plan recognizes that these rivers do not recognize political boundaries and therefore a regional approach to the planning and management of these valuable natural resources and their associated watersheds is essential. This plan is in full support of the newly created Coginchaug River Task Force and is of the opinion that a similar approach should be initiated regarding the Sebethe River. In terms of the Sumner Brook watershed, there should be greater cooperation between the City of Middletown and the Town of Durham.

These waterways and their flood plains are important areas primarily from an ecological standpoint. These flood plains represent greenbelts and wildlife corridors extending out from the Connecticut River into the city. For the most part, these flood plains are protected from any further development. But, in some areas of these flood plains the Zoning Code does allow for non-residential uses by special exception. These proposals should be very carefully scrutinized in terms of their impact on flood storage, water quality and the enhancement of the riverbank, for wildlife and if possible recreation. Where practical, access to these rivers should be improved, existing city property and other privately held properties should be kept free from debris and other sources of pollution should be minimized.

Additionally, the Planning and Zoning Commission should review and expand their stream belt regulations in order to protect water quality and floral and faunal habitat in all the city’s streams and stream belts.

PRIME AGRICULTURAL SOILS

As shown on one of the natural resources maps, Middletown has a large quantity of prime agricultural soils. Some of these areas, to date, are still undeveloped and are primarily characterized by rolling hills and meadows. While the economic value of agriculture, the production of significant amounts of cash crops, is almost non-existent in Middletown, these soils are still a significant resource. In general there are two reasons why this resource should receive consideration for protection. First of all, homegrown products are still quite popular. And secondly, the aesthetic value of agricultural land is quite important both from an historic and scenic point of view. Middletown’s roots are agricultural. Therefore, as with preserving an historic building, some of the city’s agricultural history should also be preserved.

Currently there are very few effective techniques to protect prime agricultural farmland; cluster development and Public Act 63-490 are two of these techniques. The designer environmental subdivision (DES) is a form of cluster development which is currently available but other more flexible cluster options, which allow for private wells and septic systems, should be investigated.

Public Act 63-490 is a means of reducing undesirable tax pressures on the landowner. But, even with Public Act 63-490, pressures of taxation can still be quite significant. This plan recognizes the need to preserve the property values, and thus borrowing power, that the farmland currently holds. This plan makes no attempt to keep these property values. Further, in an attempt to keep farming economically viable, the commission should seriously consider, in areas of the city containing active farms, proposals to enhance the value of these lands if these proposals are designed to promote the public good and are based on sound planning principals.

STEEP SLOPES AND RIDGE LINES

These are the areas which provide contrast to the rolling hills which are so characteristic of the Connecticut River Valley. Mount Higby, with the possible exception of the Connecticut River, is the most prominent natural feature in the city. From Interstate 91 Higby’s wooded slopes are an easily remembered landscape in Middletown and the state of Connecticut. But even more impressive are the panoramic views from along the ridge at approximately 900 feet above sea level. The mountain has been identified in numerous studies as being of statewide significance and there are numerous informal hiking trails which have been created by hikers over the years. Ensuring that as much of Amount Higby as possible remain in open space will provide for the long-term protection of this significant natural resource.

Other areas include Mount Lamentation, Bear Hill, Round Hill, Chestnut Mountain and the highlands in the southeastern portion of the city along the Connecticut River. These are the areas where peaks tend to exceed 500 feet above sea level and the terrain is steep sloping and rocky up to the ridge lines. These large parcels of wooded land have value for their plant and wildlife habitat, passive recreational use and scenic quality. These values qualify them for consideration as protected open space.

These areas, as shown on the natural resources map, because of their steep slopes and poor soils have remained largely undeveloped. But, as there is less and less quality land to build upon, developers have been moving to more marginal land.

If these areas are threatened by development, the Planning and Zoning Commission should consider creative development proposals which would cluster development at lower elevations and leave the higher elevations as open land.

The Designer Environmental Subdivision (DES) concept and the Large Lot Environmentally Sensitive concept can encourage high quality design and resource protection but these techniques are not mandatory and the DES, in most cases, requires city water and sewer. Once again, more flexible cluster options should be investigated.

AIR QUALITY

The air we breathe is often a resource which is taken for granted. Middletown’s unique topography and geographic location presents the city with special air quality problems. The primary cause of these air quality problems is due to thermal inversions. This phenomenon of thermal inversions traps the warm polluted air in the lower levels of the atmosphere and does not allow it to disperse into the upper levels. Instances of inversions are on the rise, particularly in the summer months, and the air quality in the city has thus become a significant concern. In the Plan of Development survey of citizens air quality was ranked as the number one environmental concern among Middletown residents.

The effect of air pollution on human health can vary from a source of irritation to the eyes and throat to a continuing factor in three often fatal diseases – heat disease, lung disease and cancer. Air pollution can also damage plant growth, soil materials, reduce visibility and alter climatological conditions. Some population groups, the sick, the elderly, pregnant women and children are more seriously affected by air pollution than others. These groups are sensitive receptors, suffering adverse effects at lower pollution levels than the general public. This fact should be incorporated in any consideration of the location and / or design of schools and parks, hospitals and housing.

In Middletown, the MidState region and the State of Connecticut, the main source of pollutants come from auto emissions. These pollutants are primarily carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. The map in the transportation portion of this plan displays the top eight carbon monoxide “Hot Spots and possible carbon monoxide “Hot Spots” in this region. When reviewing this map it becomes clear that the significant traffic volumes in the city of Middletown have reduced the city’s air quality appreciably. In fact, the city’s air quality has been cited by the federal government as being at one of the poorest levels in the country.

While air pollution from non point sources, automobiles are largely a situation which must be addressed at the regional if not state and national levels. Middletown as the commercial center and leader within the region should begin to address these air quality concerns in its Plan of Development for the year 2000. For this reason, the transportation portion of the Plan of Development will discuss local level strategies designed to allow the city to begin to do its part in improving air quality in the MidState region.

There are also non-transportation related strategies to minimize air quality problems. When reviewing development applications, the Planning and Zoning Commission should consider the potential impacts on air quality. The Commission should strengthen “Performance Standards” in the Zoning Code in order to limit the number of point source emissions of air pollution. Additionally, the Commission should amend the Zoning Code to allow for the incorporation of air quality impact criteria for proposed uses in order to better understand and mitigate the potential air pollution from the proposed development.

When considering amendments to the Zoning Code, the flowing Housing and Urban Development strategies should be considered.

URBAN DESIGN CRITERIA

  1. Separate as far as possible human activity from automobile and other pollution sources. Avoid residential uses close to highway air rights, elevated highways, tunnel exits, lower floors along busy streets, etc….
  2. Assure easy flow of air around the buildings.
  3. Require proper arrangement of structures.
  4. Avoid blocking valleys and other natural air flow ways with high rise structures.
SITE PLAN DESIGN
  1. Setback of structures or of heavily frequented areas of the site from major roadways can greatly reduce human exposure to pollution.
    1. Avoid long linear blocks of structure, avoid closed courts, deep angles which trap and stagnate air masses;
    2. Vary setbacks, vary building size and heights, plant irregular landscaping to increase turbulence and dispersion.
  2. Landscaping improves dispersion of pollutants and reduces infiltration of pollutants into the building.
    1. Landscaping should include the planting of pollution resistant trees; and
    2. Established trees which do not interfere with development should be saved in order to improve dispersion of pollutants and reduce infiltration into buildings.
  3. Parking Lots: Avoid large masses of parking spaces in favor of smaller parking areas more broadly distributed.
  4. Grading: Avoid site grading that creates low pit areas since these spaces tend to trap pollutants.

BUILDING DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION

  1. Avoid balconies and cavities in the building shell and on the building side which is subject to heavy pollution impact.
  2. Reduce infiltration of pollutants.
  3. Use construction technology and building equipment necessary to reduce indoor air pollution levels.

NOISE AND NOISE POLLUTION

The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines noise as any unwanted sound which disturbs human activity. In Middletown, noise is due primarily to vehicular traffic and ventilation and air conditioning operations. Ambient noise levels in Middletown are no doubt increasing due to the growing volume of noise generating activities. Although the point at which sound becomes undesirable and hence noise, varies with the individual and the sound itself, levels of noise can be defined. A noise level depends on the volume of intensity of the sound as measured in decibels, its frequency or pitch and the time of day and duration of its occurrence. In most cases, the higher the intensity, the higher the frequency, the longer the duration and noise between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. are the most disturbing. But other combinations of intensity, frequency, duration and time of day can be equally disturbing.

The long-term effects of noise on people are difficult to determine. A casual relationship has been established between noise and various effects such as hearing loss, interference with speech communications, sleep disturbance, general anxiety, irritability and annoyance. Other less well-established effects include fatigue, unsociability and inefficiency in performing complicated tasks.

Noise clearly has the potential to have an adverse effect on the quality of life of Middletown’s residents. The Planning and Zoning Departments Survey of Citizens ranked noise pollution as an important environmental concern. Since zoning is the controlling power over the use of the land and the location of uses citywide, it is the logical place to regulate, via performance standards, and adopt policies to avoid the adverse effects of noise pollution on the citizens of Middletown.

The Planning and Zoning Commission should amend “Performance Standards” in the Zoning Code in order to limit point source emissions of noise pollution. The Commission should also allow for the incorporation of noise impact criteria for proposed uses in order to better understand and mitigate potential noise pollution.

When considering amendments to the Zoning Code the following Housing and Urban Development strategies should be considered.

  1. Sites within 15 miles of an existing or proposed commercial or military airport will require an assessment.
  2. Sites within 1000 feet of streets or highways, with characteristics, such as high traffic levels, high speed or heavy truck / bus usage that would indicate high vehicular noise levels, will require an assessment.
  3. Sites in close proximity to other significant noise sources such as industrial facilities or power-generating stations will require an assessment.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development uses the day-night average sound level system, measured in decibels, to analyze the overall level of noise in an area. While too technical to discuss in a Plan of Development, it is strongly recommended that this system or a similar one be incorporated into the Zoning Codes performance standards in order to give the Planning and Zoning Commission the jurisdiction to consider the noise impact of a proposal.

When reviewing development applications, the Planning and Zoning Commission should consider the following questions.

  1. Given the existing and anticipated noise levels, is the site appropriate for the proposed activities and facilities
  2. Sites within 1000 feet of streets or highways, with characteristics, such as high traffic levels, high speed or heavy truck / bus usage that would indicate high vehicular noise levels, will require an assessment.
  3. What type of noise mitigation measures are proposed for the project. Possible mitigation measures include:
    1. Reduce noise at its source.
    2. Locate noise sensitive uses so that they will not be exposed to unacceptable noise levels.
    3. Modify the path along which noise emissions travel, i.e. Barriers, so as to reduce noise levels at the receptor site.
    4. Design or modify structures to minimize interior noise levels.

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