April 16, 2024 – Connecticut lost a town last night, but it did not lose either territory or population. Two suburban entities simply merged into a new, larger, town: New Hamden.
“The move was inevitable, really,” said New Hamden’s first mayor, Jane Appleby. “Consolidation of services will make delivery of all social services more cost effective.”
New Hamden is the merger of two former Connecticut towns, Hamden and Bethany. It was a move foreseen a decade ago when Bethany, formerly a semi-rural enclave midway between Waterbury and New Haven, opened its borders to condominium development when it changed its zoning ordinances to permit the Green Haven co-housing development.
The Green Haven project was initially proposed to town residents as a means of preserving the town’s rural character. A group of self-described “free-thinkers” sought permission to built high-density housing on the grounds of the former Halter Farm property, with housing units tightly packed into a corner of the property, while the balance was organically “farmed” on a cooperative basis. No sooner had ground been broken for construction of the new units, than investors were in court challenging the scope and extent of the association’s lifestyle bylaws.
The project was approved after several years of contentious litigation, its proponents claiming that a couple of units set aside as “low-income” housing would satisfy state laws requiring each of the state’s towns to offer such housing. Proponents claimed the units would diversify the town’s housing stock, offering new homes to the region’s elderly and young people. Critics contended that the project, though sounding nice in theory, was fatally flawed, a version of what one critic called “Johnny Appleseed utopianism.”
Green Haven’s vision of a condominium association devoted to organic farming succeeded only in building high-density housing, and opening Bethany to general condominium development. The first wave of occupants tried and failed to make a go at farming, realizing quickly enough that utopian dreams of working the land were hard to satisfy while simultaneously earning a living in the region’s cities. New Haven’s housing court was quickly clogged with notices to quit and other forms of litigation intended to enforce association by-laws involving use of the open space.
Then came more significant litigation: A successful challenge by the NAACP persuaded a court that Green Haven’s utopian vision was really just a sophisticated form of racism. “The lifestyle proposed as a condition of occupancy,” the court ruled, “is but the subtlest form of racism: You can live here but only if you agree to believe, to think and to behave as we do. Ironically, or perhaps not ironically at all, applicants to Green Haven’s utopian community turn out to be predominantly white, middle-class and professional.” The court then struck down the co-housing development association’s by-laws requiring support for the use of the open space for organic farming as “naïve in form, racially invidious in effect.”
The zoning ordinance change permitting Green Haven to develop served as a beachhead for aggressive development elsewhere. The court’s ruling striking down what it referred to as “lifestyle zoning” created the equivalent of rush on open space in town. As one town father noted: “There is no principled reason to permit Green Haven and to exclude others.” One developer who wished to remain anonymous had this to say: “Green Haven was a godsend, clearing the way for vast tracts of development throughout Bethany.”
Soon thereafter developers fixed their sights on condominium development elsewhere in town. Within five short years, several hundred new housing units had filled what were once open fields. Bethany’s zoning officials were wary of rejecting any new application for high-density housing once having approved the first, fearing the high cost of litigation, and allegations of “snob zoning” to prevent people of color and other minorities from moving into town.
The increase in housing units led to substantial increases in Bethany’s population, and in the need for such services as police, fire and schools, thus rendering merger with an adjoining town attractive. Bethany chose to merge with Hamden as the landscape of the two towns had become virtually indistinguishable.
“Sure, it is sad to see Bethany’s rural character lost,” Appleby said. “But it was inevitable, really. Population pressures endure, and it is time for Bethany to face the future with confidence.”