Sidebar Middletown's Plan of Development

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

  1. Middletown has an area of 42.9 square miles.
  2. Altitude: The highest peak above mean sea level is 907 feet at Mt. Higby Reservoir. The lowest mean sea level is 15 feet at the Connecticut River. Most of Middletown is under 480 feet.
  3. Topography: Middletown consists of flat marshlands at the river levels to rolling hills. The Connecticut River and its tributaries, the Sebethe or Mattabasset River, Coginchaug River and Sumner Brook, are the principal waterways.
    The original city center lies on relatively level land, rising slowly from the river level to the Wesleyan campus at the west. The land falls off abruptly into the valley of the Mattabasset 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 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 Mattabasset and Coginchaug Rivers there are extensive areas of alluvial soils, much of them subject to flooding. In general, the soil conditions of this part of the City are unsuitable for development except at a very low density, unless public sanitary sewerage is available.
    Sumner Brook and its tributaries drain much of the south central area of the City. These streams rise near the 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 of 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 south boundary.
  4. Climate Average annual temperature: 50.20 F.
    Mean maximum January temperature: 36 F.
    Mean minimum January temperature: 18 F.
    Mean maximum July temperature: 83 F.
    Mean minimum July temperature: 61 F.
    Average annual rainfall 50.34 inches
    Average annual snowfall: 37.2 inches

HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Middletown’s Plan of Development is based on aesthetic and cultural resources and the goals of the community. The importance of history and historic preservation in the local planning process cannot be overstated. The basic planning objectives of maximum utilization of scarce land and building resources in densely built up areas can be aided by a preservation program, focusing on economically feasible adaptive uses for old structures.

To formulate and implement development goals, a community must be acknowledgeable about its history, as well as about current trends. The historical, along with the physical, is the basis for determining community goals and objectives.

In planning for Middletown, the history of the community as well as social, economic and financial conditions must be considered. The following has been prepared so that policy on Middletown’s growth and future direction will be based on a thorough awareness of itself and its history.

THE COLONIAL PERIOD

Differences in politics and theology brought settlers to the Connecticut River Valley. There was also another reason: overcrowding in Massachusetts. Unplanned growth and urbanization still are important motivations for people migrating to new areas.

One of the first towns founded in Connecticut was Middletown. The original site included territory that became the towns of Middlefield, Chatham, Portland, Cromwell, and a part of Berlin. These towns date to the early 1700’s. Now local governments annex areas for more efficient operation, but in the eighteenth century the approach was to form smaller, separate communities.

Colonists first called Middletown by the Indian name Mattabesek, which means carrying place or portage. Mattabesek was not an accurate name because of the many streams in the township. In 1643 the Massachusetts General Court renamed the area Middletown. This was one of the first times that a new and descriptive name was used for a town in America; usual practice was to take names from the Bible.

In spite of the 1650 settlement date, Middletown records only date to 1653. The first recorded vote was for a meeting house near a great elm at the north end of town, in the vicinity of Saint John’s Square. The town had strong religious convictions and developed around the church meeting house.

As in other New England settlements, Middletown’s economy had an agricultural base. Along with corn, which first had been planted by the Indians, the early farmers grew rye, oats and wheat. Farm gardens produced cabbage, lettuce, carrots, beans and parsnips. In the late 1700’s farmers began to market their surplus. A farmer’s club, first of its kind in the state, was formed in 1842. Even when other industries developed in Middletown, agriculture continued as an important element of the local economy. In more contemporary times, farmers specialized. They concentrated on dairy and poultry farming because of Middletown’s proximity to larger cities. Middletown’s strong commitment to agriculture lasted until 1963. The Interim General Plan of Development, then adopted, did not recommend that Middletown maintain itself as an agricultural center. This was a significant policy change for the City. By 1970, only agriculture, farming and fishing industries.

Along with agriculture, industry has been a significant factor in Middletown’s economic development. In the early days almost every stream in Middletown was used for powering mill machinery. The first mill was a grist mill near Pameacha Pond (1655). Later, a mill was located on West Street near Newfield. These mills were the antecedents to today’s industrial parks and areas.

When the area was first considered for a settlement, it was thought adequate for 15 families. By 1654, there were 31 taxable homes here. The number had only grown to 52 in 1670. The City’s early growth, the, was slow. The impetus for growth was not to be felt for another hundred years. It was shipbuilding and the merchant trade which developed because of the shipbuilding that attracted newcomers to Middletown. The population was concentrated near the river, the location of the principle activities of the town.

By 1790 the population had grown to 5,370. In that year, Hartford had a population of 4,090 and New Haven had a population of 4,484. Middletown was one of the largest communities in Connecticut. More important, though, was the City’s status as a riverport. Middletown was an official port of entry.

Vessels of a high grade anchored in the river and trade flourished. Initially the river trade was confined to the Atlantic seaboard but by 1760, the West Indies trade was well established. Commerce at first built up the farming interests so farmers as well as merchants prospered. Eventually though, foreign trade was to hurt the farmer.

MIDDLETOWN DURING THE REVOLUTION

By the time of the American Revolution, Middletown was one of the wealthiest communities in the Colonies. While official records reveal that town concerns were on the minds of Middletown residents, there never was any doubt of local support for the independence cause. Town officials agreed to support its policies even to the extent of a complete halt in trade with the British. For a town with important overseas trade interest, this was a substantial commitment.

Middletown citizens became prominent during the Revolution in civic rather than military affairs. Eventually, Middletown’s leadership was to extend to the wider spheres of state and continental matters. There were very few loyalists in Middletown; no local resident had property confiscated because of loyalist sentiment. Because in was inland, Middletown experienced less interference with normal peacetime activities than other towns in Connecticut.

The City was not attacked by the British. After the British seized Rye in 1776, Middletown became a critical supply depot. During the Revolution the City mined lead. The mine was one of the most important in Connecticut. The lead vein wad exhausted in 1778 but by that time, 15, 563 pounds of lead had been produced for cannons and guns.

Simeon North, the first official pistol maker in America, established his arms factory in Middletown during the Revolution. Later, in 1813, he introduced the principle of interchangeable parts, a significant production innovation.

During the war, Middletown’s privateers experienced a mixture of success and failure. The oldest American warship, the Oliver Cromwell, came from Middletown. Privateering did not replace the West Indies trade which had stopped during the Revolution. But ultimately wartime conditions had a positive effect on local trade. Traffic was diverted from the shore road to routes through Middletown. Middletown came out of the conflict in a good position to capitalize on expanding commercial and industrial opportunities in the following decades.

GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION

Long before Middletown was formally incorporated by the Connecticut General Assembly, the Massachusetts General Court had ordered the appointment of a constable here. Appointment and swearing in of a constable was considered incorporation of a town and any further government organization was left to the local inhabitants. The Charter incorporating Middletown after the Revolution was granted in 1784. Middletown was one of the first towns incorporated in Connecticut.

The original Charter authorized a mayor, four aldermen, a common council, a city court, sheriffs and a tax collector. Middletown’s first mayor was a revolutionary was hero, Jabez Hamilton. The mayor held office until his resignation or death. It wasn’t until 1840 that two year terms for the mayor’s office were inaugurated.

The Common Council has had the most extensive governmental authority in Middletown. The first ordinance passed by the Council was actually a zoning regulation: “A By-Law Restraining Swine and Geese from Roaming at Large Through the City.” The law had zoning implications since it restricted the use of property. By 1888, the Common Council set rules and regulations for public works, registration of voters, preservation of records, health, public utilities, consumer protection, law enforcement and waterfront matters. The 1888 City Code mandated eight committees of the Council: Street and Highways, Finance, Sewers, Fire, Police, Abatement, Street Lamps and Lights, and Health and Nuisance.

When City departments were created to administer the day to day activities of local government, they came under the control and direction of the Common Council. In 1924 there were five departments: The Department of Public Works, the Police Department, the Fire Department, the Charities Department and the Park Department. So besides making bylaws and ordinances which articulated city policy, councilmatic authority extended to the daily regulation of municipal affairs.

The present charter delegates all legislative powers to the Common Council. It is the primary policy setting body in Middletown. The Council implements policy by its authority to levy taxes, to borrow money, to adopt a budget and to appropriate funds. Until recently, Middletown’s government was characterized as a weak mayor – strong council organization. The mayor’s function was to preside at council meetings. He was a member ex-officio of the council. The chief law enforcement officer in the City was the Mayor. He could suppress all “tumults” and could jail persons for twenty-four hours if they behaved in a disorderly manner. Recommendations could be made to the Council by the mayor only in particular areas: Police, security, health, cleanliness, ornaments of the City, and the improvement of government and finances. While the mayor prepared a yearly report on government, finances and improvement, the report was published by the Common Council.

The Mayor’s office was considerably strengthened in 1964 when he was made a voting member of boards, commissions and agencies appointed by him. The 1964 Charter further made the mayor responsible for the administration of all city departments, agencies and offices. The mayor could now make recommendations to the Common Council in any area.

The greatest innovation of this charter revision concerned the mayor’s budget making authority. This was probably the most significant change in Middletown’s government operation since its incorporation. The mayor became the official responsible to submitting a budget to the council.

Increases in the mayor’s authority are in keeping with the nationwide trend for a stronger chief executive. Charter revisions effective in November 1973, further strengthened the office of the mayor so that now he exercises even more influence on City management. The mayor can veto ordinances and appropriations passed by the council. A vetoed provision cannot become law unless the legislative body passes it again.

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: MANUFACTURING GROWTH

The shipping industry never really recovered after the Revolution. Around 1800, Middletown began to rely less on the river as the mainstay of its economy and industry started to spring up. Since its early years, Middletown’s favorable location on the river and it centrality in the state have attracted many industries. During the first part of the nineteenth century, Middletown leads the state in the number of factories and value of its products.

The Industrial Revolution brought a new era to Middletown: the local economy was now based on textiles. The first industries were cotton and wool. The Middletown Manufacturing Company was a pioneer in using steam for power. During the War of 1812, great quantities of gunpowder were manufactured. After the War, the City began manufacturing ivory combs, gold spectacles, pewter goods, a variety of small hardware, muskets, swords, docks, pumps, cotton webbing, marine hardware, hammocks, silver plate, lace rubber goods and fertilizers. In 1895 local businessmen formed “The Society for the Encouragement of Connecticut Manufactories.” In 1910 the group was incorporated as the Manufacturers Association of Connecticut. Manufacturing has always been a very strong element in Middletown.

In 1834 the Russell Manufacturing Company was founded. The firm purchased a mill site near Rubber Mill Pond. In 1841 the firm began manufacturing elastic web which up to that time had only been done on hand looms. Machinery was invented to weave the web on power looms. The Russell Company was the first anywhere to make elastic on power looms.

TRANSPORTATION

The first roads in Middletown were built and maintained by private companies who were repaid for their investment by toll collection. The oldest road was the Middlesex Turnpike which ran from Saybrook to Haddam to Middletown. Main Street was laid out soon after the arrival of the first settlers. To prevent a surprise Indian attack, a large area was cleared, the antecedent of our present wide main thoroughfare. While Middletown was settled before Philadelphia and Savannah, Middletown streets were not laid out on any comprehensive plan. It wasn’t until the planned residential developments of the 1970’s that street systems were planned. Street growth in Middletown was slow but constant. As the community developed, the appearance of the streets changed more drastically than their location. At first, Main Street was the site of stately homes as was Washington Street. When shipping declined, downtown residences were razed to make way for business and industrial uses. Business and commercial land were located in the Court Street area, along with municipal buildings. Through the years, changes in the street system have permanently obliterated many of the famous local landmarks, such as a ropewalk and a park.

The first permanent street names were fixed in 1809. All but six of these streets (Turnpike Road, Swamp, Low, Parsonage, Lumber and Elm Streets) have retained their original names. City streets were noted throughout the State of their tranquility and beauty. In the nineteenth century, great elms and maples formed canopies over the roads. One of the truly unique characteristics of Middletown has been the extent and variation of its trees. One story holds that Middletown was not settled before the other old river towns (Saybrook, Hartford, Wethersfield and Windsor) because the forest cover was so thick with trees that the backcountry seemed uninviting.

The increasing number of factories in Middletown caused major transportation problems. Middletown had a chance for a railroad in 1830, but the shipping interest convinced local leaders the town did not need one. Nothing could make up for the lack of the railway. By 1846 the community had decided it wanted a railroad and gave a New York and Boston firm a charter for a line from New Haven with a drawbridge over the river. The line was completed in 1872 and traffic began a year later. The railroad company discontinued service when it saw that it was not going to make a profit.

A branch line to Berlin was offered to Middletown in 1849, and the town took it. The line ran from Berlin junction through East Berlin. Westfield, Newfield, and into Middletown, entering behind Saint John’s Church, crossing over what is now Hartford Avenue and running south along Water Street to the foot of Washington Street.

Without quick and efficient transportation to and from other Connecticut points, life in Middletown became low key. The City was to make in comfort, culture and beauty what it lacked in commercial importance. For a long time the town tried to recruit an institution of higher learning. Attempts to get Trinity College failed. Wesleyan University was founded in 1831. The University received its charter after $18,000 had been raised by local residents. The establishment of state facilities – The Connecticut State Hospital (1868) and the Long Lane School for Girls (1870) made the town known as the site of notable state institutions.

PUBLIC SCHOOL TRADITION

New England, of course, has a strong tradition in public education and Middletown exemplifies the tradition. Schools had been the central element in residential areas. Middletown has put schools at the core of the neighborhood.

By 1675, the town had its own schoolhouse. Local school districts were established around 1784, when the City was incorporated. Each school was supervised by a committee, which meant there were little uniform standards in education.

The City School Districts were unified in 1857. A Board of Education was provided for with its members to serve for three years, one third of whom were elected annually. Middletown High School was established in 1840, the first in Connecticut and one of the first in the nation. The Court Street structure was built in 1896.

Besides the City School District, there was also a Town School District. In 1884, the town really had eighteen school districts. The budget for that year was $7,100 for 1,213 students, a per capita expenditure of $5.35. This contrasted with the fiscal 1989 per capita expenditure of $3,918.00. The inevitable inefficiency of numerous school districts lead to the enactment of a state law mandating consolidation of the town school district. In 1922, the separate districts were consolidated into a single Town School District.

INTO THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Middletown’s manufacturing and population grew after the Civil War. The height of manufacturing prosperity was the 1920’s. A Chamber of Commerce brochure of the period attributed the attractiveness of the community to the even balance between industrial and residential development.

Deprived of a railroad, Middletown had been obliged to look to close markets, ones that could easily be reached by existing modes of transportation. What has been important for Middletown has not been its central location, but its location relative to Hartford, New Haven and other cities as well as a main corridor connecting Boston to Washington. It was the automobile that brought dramatic change to Middletown.

PLANNING IN MIDDLETOWN

Up to the 1920’s Middletown’s development had been unplanned. There were not attempts to clarify community feeling on the kind of living environment it was trying to create by specific decisions. Spurred by the national interest in planning and zoning, Middletown passed its first zoning ordinance in 1927. The Commission on the City Plan and Zoning was established in 1931 by the Connecticut General Assembly.

After World War II, extensive building caused local development issue to become more important to municipal governments. The Federal government encouraged planning at the local level. The Housing Act of 1954 required each applicant for funds to have a workable housing program, one element of which was a comprehensive plan. Since 1954, Federal housing programs have increasingly required the conformance of proposed improvements to a local plan.

The national interest in planning after World War II motivated Middletown’s Commission on the City Plan and Zoning to become more active in planning issues. A staff was hired in 1954. A comprehensive plan was adopted in 1955. This plan was more than a confirmation of existing city zones, as had been the earlier plan. The guiding principals of the 1955 plan were to retain the downtown district as a shopping center for the community, to make land available for industry, and to control residential development. The plan recommended making Pameacha Pond a recreational area and encouraging agriculture. For Washington Street, this plan proposed a low volume of traffic with only showroom stores. Eight years later, the Plan was amended. The 1963 revisions reiterated many of the already adopted proposals, but there was one major policy change. The comprehensive plan abandoned the goal of maintaining Middletown as a rural agricultural center. The plan proposed that Middletown direct its efforts towards new industrial, commercial and residential developments.

While the City Planning and Zoning Commission was considering the 1963 amendments, it was also working on a more detailed comprehensive plan. The 1965 Comprehensive Plan was the City’s first truly comprehensive plan. It was the first attempt to deal with the essential elements of a community. It took into account regional trends and was related to the social and economic forces it was designed to accommodate.

Because of changes in Middletown since 1965, the Planning and Zoning Commission extensively revised the Plan of Development and adopted a major update in 1976. The 1976 update helped the City achieve its present prosperous position and unique character.

This comprehensive update of the Plan of Development is designed to guide the City through the year 2000.

GOALS OF THE 2000 PLAN OF DEVELOPMENT

An important part of a Plan of Development is the articulation of the City’s goals. The following general goals are designed towards achieving the highest possible quality of life for the current residents and future residents of Middletown. The more detailed objectives, which are recommendations designed to help achieve these goals, will be presented in each individual chapter.

ON THE ECONOMY

To encourage balanced growth so as to insure Middletown of a sound fiscal position and a secure employment and tax base.

To encourage and assist existing businesses to remain, prosper and expand and to attract high quality, new businesses.

To encourage retail and service establishments to locate in the Central Business District and discourage their dispersion to other parts of the City.

ON TRANSPORTATION

To develop a more efficient transportation network which will minimize travel time and congestion and improve air quality city wide.

To provide for a variety of alternative transportation modes in order to reduce automobile traffic, conserve energy and continue to improve air quality.

To minimize the current peak hour traffic congestion in the Central Business District, using creative traffic channelization, intersection improvement, improved signalization and staggered shifts among our major employers.

ON HOUSING

To continue to encourage a diverse mix of private single family residential dwellings on lots of varying densities so as to correct the current imbalance between multi family and single family dwellings.

To provide for diversity in the future single family residential housing stock in order to attract an economically and culturally diverse population, capable of sustaining or improving the current status of the community.

To identify older neighborhoods in need of rehabilitation and adopt policies and regulations to encourage this rehabilitation while discouraging gentrification.

Monitor population growth and avoid residential density increases which would over-burden the capacity of the City’s infrastructure.

NATURAL RESOURCES

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.

ON RECREATION

To provide for the optimal number of safe, well maintained, active and passive recreation facilities in areas most suited to service the diverse population.

ON COMMUNITY FACILITIES

To provide the optimal type and distribution of facilities and to effectively maintain and enhance the existing facilities.

ON EDUCATION

To promote well-coordinated and comprehensive educational and training programs designed to equip students of all age groups for a constantly changing job market.

ON HISTORIC AND CULTURAL MATTERS

To preserve historic and architecturally significant resources and to promote cultural activities in Middletown’s Central Business District.

ON URBAN DESIGN AND CITY BEAUTIFICATION

To require buildings and other structures, to be of high quality design and properly maintained in order to create and insure a healthy, safe, pleasant and attractive living environment.

ON LAND USE To encourage the appropriate, coordinated and economic use of land in a manner which is consistent with the goals articulated in this plan, facilitates conservation of energy and enables the efficient supply of public utilities and services.

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