Savin Rock’s Transition
The following is presented as submitted by Steve Hildrich from news clippings and his personal recollections:
On July 5, 1984, the Bradley Point Veterans Memorial Park and the Soderman Flagpole were dedicated. The event took place exactly 205 years after the British invasion of New Haven landed at Bradley Point, as is noted on the bronze plaque near the flagpole, and was so nobly resisted that day by West Haven Minutemen. The Flagpole was dedicated to William Soderman, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman – the only resident of West Haven ever to be so honored.
The success of the park and the walkway along the shore was immediate and overwhelming. After having again unsuccessfully resubmitted the “Great Wall of China” proposal for Parcel I in the early 1980s, Summerset Ltd. finally in 1987, agreed to sell their development rights to the city for $2.5 million. The park plan was approved in 1989. Today the beautiful “Grove Park,” where the Savin Rock Festival has been held ever since, beckons West Haveners to its pavilion and tree-lined walkways. No 12-story 800-foot-long apartment building, that would have forever blocked West Haveners from their beautiful Shoreline, stands there today.
In 1988 and early 1989 Mayor Azelio Guerra worked to attempt to secure the remaining parcels of the 40 acres that people in West Haven so fervently wished to be saved.
The work of the city was aided by two very important factors: 1) the value of the condo market began collapsing in 1988. The developers (Jimmies and the former Casino Restaurant – now the Savin Rock Conference Center — owners) wanted $25,000,000 for the development rights. But the other factor was 2) retired former Supreme Court Justice Santanello was a master arbitrator, and as the condominium market continued to plummet in price, he continued to negotiate the developers down to $7 million. The necessary city boards approved the bonds that purchased all the remaining parcel’s development rights in April, 1989. There was opposition. Some in IMPACT opposed the purchase as still too expensive and even wanted to tear down the Casino building. That became the Savin Rock Conference Center.
In June of 1989, Mayor Guerra appointed the “Parcel J1, L and M Committee” with Judge Michael Heffernan as chairman. It was tasked with making recommendations for the Casino and other parcels. Mike had been Summersett’s attorney, but now realized how important saving the shore was to West Haven. Steve Hildrich of the 1979 Concerned Citizens, which had secured the compromise plan, was appointed, along with such West Haven luminaries as John Ireland. The committee took a survey of public opinion and would have recommended including the Parcels into the Park and saving the former Casino building. However, Mayor Clem Evangeliste won the 1989 election and dissolved the committee in Jan. 1990. Eventually what is now the wonderful Savin Rock Conference Center and Savin Rock Museum, was created, which enhances the Shoreline so well.
Most importantly, the development rights to all 40 acres Redevelopment Project II were now owned by the city – and thus the people of West Haven – a 20 year struggle. However, many were concerned that some West Haven administration might somehow be able to sell off some of the shoreline parcels to developers. A land trust was mentioned but no one took action.
In early 1991, Mayor Evangeliste even talked of it, [perhaps] not realizing that the city could not have a Land Trust over its own property. Any lawyer or any intelligent person could have founded a land trust, but only one person did.
Encouraged by the Historical Society also in very early 1991, Steve Hildrich agreed to found a land trust. With suggested names from Historian Harriet North, he formed the Land Trust of West Haven Committee and prepared the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. At meetings with the public and in newspapers, Hildrich, as founder and acting chairman, explained how the Land Trust would have to pressure and negotiate with the city to grant it a “conservation easement” which would give the land trust the legal right to prevent development of the 40 acres of shoreline.
However soon after his documents were filed with the Secretary of the State, incorporating it as the Land Trust of West Haven, Inc., Hildrich had a falling out with members from the Historical Society. To him, they wanted to make it more a political tool to attack the mayor. Hildrich resigned in late May of 1991, when the land trust board elected Ted Adams as chairman.
A final delay occurred when Superior Court Judge Booth decided that the land trust could not have a binding conservation easement over the shoreline, until the expiration, in 2006, of the 40 year Federal Redevelopment Statute. Adams died about 2006 and had been succeeded earlier as President. After extended negotiation, the Conservation Easement was signed by the City and the Land Trust in 2007, ending the 40-year struggle to save the West Haven shore.
Our thanks to Sue Burke Hutchinson, Rosalie DeFeo and Steve Hildrich, without whose help, this series would not be possible.