In March of 1897, Curtis Thompson, a well-regarded attorney of many years in Bridgeport presented a case on behalf of the town of Easton at a judiciary committee hearing in Hartford.
At issue was Easton’s grand list that had been materially reduced when the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company took over a stream for the supply of water to the city. Thompson, who was noted as a man of unswerving industry, honesty, and conscience, was often called by neighboring towns in the greater Fairfield region for his judicious council and vast historic knowledge. In this case, Thompson argued that the houses, barns, and small factories on the stream in question had been condemned to protect the Bridgeport water supply from pollution. He saw justice in Easton’s claim that the water company had taken the most valuable assets of the town and that some fair value should be paid by the city of Bridgeport or the water company to Easton as compensation for the loss of tax revenue.
Supportive arguments were added from Easton born and Yale trained barrister Percy L. Johnson who posited that the reservoirs, dams, and piping should be taxed as commercial property rather than real estate. In their defense, the water company pointed out that the original Easton property owners were paid in some cases triple the value for their lots before the destruction of their buildings. They further argued that the water in Easton was not valuable. It only became so after it had been transported to Bridgeport and therefore no revenue was due to Easton.
In order to avoid increasing the cost of water to consumers, no additional taxes were levied on the water company or Bridgeport. The town of Easton would receive no benefit from the supply of water to its neighboring metropolis. Now, this failed attempt to recover funding for the town may have been a bit of a last-ditch effort to shore up its declining economy. Even without the water company buying up the properties, Easton, like many small rural communities, was losing its population to its neighboring city since the mid-19th century.
Reservoir towns proliferated in the early 20th century in the United States as valleys were dammed and rivers were impounded. Consequently, private properties were flooded, and residents forced to move. While financial compensation was given, it was often considered inadequate to the loss of long held homesteads. In Connecticut, some water projects such as the Barkhamstead Reservoir flooded two villages and displaced over 1,000 people to provide water for Hartford. Locally here in Fairfield, and perhaps more infamously due to James Lomuscio’s book, Village of the Dammed, is the lost Valley Forge community in neighboring Weston. Its remains today are at the bottom of the Saugatuck Reservoir that also flooded areas of Redding and Easton.
Like the Saugatuck, the Easton Reservoir also displaced families from the Mill River valley. Though many of their homes were relocated elsewhere in town, others were destroyed by fire along with the surrounding vegetation after all the hardwoods were harvested and cleared. During dry periods, one can still see the network of stone walls standing in the waters delineating the farm and pasture lands.
For those who remained in Easton, the first decades of the 20th century must certainly have been a period of adjustment to a new world as the landscape that was once so familiar disappeared under water. They witnessed periods of ground shaking excavation and intense water-work construction that only lessened after the completion of the Saugatuck Reservoir in 1942. With the combined 7,000 acres of buffering watershed lands around the Aspetuck, Easton and Saugatuck Reservoirs, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company became the major landowner in town and in many ways controlled its residents relationship to their surrounding environment. Imagine what it must have been like for the townspeople seeing these beautiful manmade bodies of water, and learning they were off limits. There would be no swimming or boating. Fishing was restricted, though at times allowed by permit. Hunting and harvesting in the adjacent lands were strictly prohibited with “No Trespassing” signs posted. Of course, necessity, curiosity or just plain stubbornness led many to ignore these prohibitions. A glance through police reports show the repeated warnings and violations given by water company employees, as well as local and state police. Young perpetrators were often driven home to face the wrath of their parents, but adults were often fined and, in some cases, arrested and jailed for repeated offenses.
Town residents were not just subjected to the water company authority at the reservoirs. To ensure the safety of its commodity, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company sent inspectors annually between mid-March and mid-July to visit local properties examining the streams and tributaries that crossed their lands. Starting in 1930, each property had a card and a corresponding number on the company’s watershed map to help guide the process. Often the design and location of septic systems would be drawn out on the back of the cards. Over the years, the Hydraulic company’s inspectors are said to have walked every inch of the watershed many times over, looking for evidence of dumping as well as septic contamination. Testing at the mouth of feeder streams would give them clues as to problems and they would follow the trail back to the source. Sometimes it was the waste from farm animals, improperly stored pesticides or even leaking oil tanks. This vigilance was particularly important in the post war years when many acres of farmstead were converted into residential homes on 1 and 3-acre zoned lots.
Regular water company inspections had a great benefit to Easton at a time when our state did not have any water pollution regulations to help keep our waterways clean. Neighboring towns during the 1950’s record unchecked septic contamination from homes into streams, wildlife die-offs in ponds and oily waste on the surface of local rivers. The State Water Commission, established in 1925, was poorly funded and powerless to enforce improvements. In contrast, Easton’s environment was thriving, and the pristine nature of our town attracted a new generation of residents that discovered this oasis just off the recently constructed Merritt Parkway. Writers, artists, musicians, and politicians purchased summer homes while families across economic levels chose to live here year-round. They were willing to accept the inspections for the quality of life it provided them.
Concurrent with this population growth was a state-wide push for regionalization so that neighboring towns could cooperate with one another on issues of pollution, traffic, education, industry and security. By 1954, there was a concerted effort to have Easton join Fairfield, Trumbull, Bridgeport, and Stratford. Easton however, abstained from joining this regional agency and only pursued a collaboration with neighboring Redding for the Joel Barlow High School in 1957. Though the town committed to providing help to its neighbors, it repeatedly voted down proposals to officially join any regional authority. This resulted in quite a bit of hostility and our town was deemed to be a “terrible thorn” in the side of any persons wanting to pursue development and our residents were likened to “ostriches with their heads in the sand” as they maintained a seemingly isolationist stance.
There were certainly many contributory reasons behind Easton’s abstinence from regional affiliations but at the core of our town’s hesitancy was its long-term history with the water company. Older residents understood that Easton had already been committed to regionalization when its water was enlisted in the service of its neighbors. While Bridgeport and surrounding towns grew ever larger and wealthier from their residential and commercial tax bases, Easton had been frozen with little industry and limited development as a watershed. As a consequence, Easton was not keen on expanding its financial responsibilities or compromising its stewardship of its water resources.
Further amplifying Eastoner’s concerns were the negative environmental effects of unchecked development in Fairfield County. By the 1960’s water quality conditions were so poor in our state that public outcry demanded government action. In 1965, Governor Dempsey appointed a Clean Water Task Force that resulted in the 1967 Clean Water Bill ushering in the beginnings of modern pollution control in our state. It is a point of pride to note that when the federal government began writing its national Clean Water Act in 1971, it used Connecticut’s as a model.
As our state began to remediate its waterways and greater awareness developed in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Easton began to discover that despite the Hydraulic Company’s and the town’s best efforts, it was not immune to pollution. Areas of contamination were cropping up in its own landscape. As early as 1971, studies revealed that septic waste had permeated the Mill River water from Easton homes and a former dump site in Weston had polluted the well water of nearby Easton residents.
These incidents pushed our citizens to have greater vigilance over their own town and to organize active groups such as Citizens for Easton, which endorsed effective town planning to preserve its environment. Invited guest speakers from the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency explained the purifying “web of life” created by the water courses and wetlands that crisscross our town. Creating an “unparalleled and unique area in our state,” they urged residents to follow good stewardship practices by maintaining their wells and septic fields while respecting the zoning setbacks that protect sensitive ecological areas.
The effect of this overwhelming grassroots movement transformed Easton from a passive reservoir town to an active champion of conservation in our greater Fairfield community. Residents soon understood that the watershed was a priceless resource and they were determined to defend it. Though, with our country suffering from inflation and fuel supply shortages in the 1970’s, some felt the solution for Easton’s fiscal troubles rested in growing the tax base of the town by increasing residential properties, allowing corporate buildings and permitting commercial stores.
The General Electric Company headquarters that has now been abandoned in Fairfield and donated to Sacred Heart University was originally proposed for Easton. Cluster housing in the form of a large condominium complex with over a hundred units was proposed for South Park Avenue along with an expansive shopping mall at the current Easton Village Store site that would have included a parking lot for more than 70 cars.
Land use surveys were used to help gauge the opinion of residents as these proposals were considered. Testimony at packed town hall meetings vigorously debated the issues but all zoning changes were overwhelmingly rejected.
In a rather ironic twist of self-advocacy, Easton also began to examine the activity of the Hydraulic Company more closely. When the BHC planned dredging and infilling of areas around the Aspetuck Reservoir in 1981, local town officials were concerned enough to request they obtain permits from the local inlands/wetlands agency. They also sought the oversight of the Department of Environmental Protection along with that of the US Army Corps of Engineers. This careful approach resulted in the water company altering its initial plans which had been intended to reduce stagnant water between islands. They later modified it so that it was less impactful to wildlife by only constructing three small dikes.
By the time Bridgeport Hydraulic became the Aquarion Company in 1991, Easton residents were learning that it would have to look beyond their borders and collaborate with neighboring towns in order to protect our common natural resources. Aquarion was divesting itself of land and intended to sell 737 acres of watershed property in Weston and Easton. This tract of land, known as Trout Brook Valley, is an impressive nature preserve today where you can freely hike, but bulldozers came very close to turning this beautiful area into a 200 acre golf course surrounded by luxury homes.
Fortunately, our first selectman at the time was Bill Kupinse, one of the founding members of Citizens for Easton. Under his guidance, volunteers, non-profit organizations, residents and impassioned philanthropists raised enough funds to purchase 685 acres of Aquarion land in Easton which are now preserved as part of the Aspetuck Land Trust. Our neighboring towns all contributed to the effort and worked together to lobby state legislators for a common beneficial cause-apparently for the first time ever!
As first selectman for five terms, Bill saw many troubling attempts to develop Easton in ways that would be harmful to the environment. From South Park Avenue to Morehouse Road, housing proposals with greater density than recommended for watershed areas were presented. In response, our townspeople enacted a ban on community septic in 2006.
Reflecting on all the years in which Easton has served as a reservoir town, it is clear that its most valuable asset was never really just the water that was taken, but actually, it was the land. Bill understood this and worked diligently to preserve every parcel he could. One of the last gifts he gave to his ”Jewel of Fairfield,” was a Land Use Ordinance proposal that passed just after his death in 2021. With this legislation, our residents will have a say in the fate of lands sold or leased by the town. And that brings us to yet another critical asset in our community; our citizens. We have a responsibility to participate in our governance to protect our environment and that of our neighbors. Bill understood that too. Hopefully our legacy will be as honorable.