Cradled within the green rolling hills of northeastern Connecticut and south-central Massachusetts is the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley. The watershed of these two rivers (whose names so frequently tongue-tie) is the last predominately undeveloped region in the Boston-to-Washington coastal sprawl. In 1994 the U.S. Congress recognized the area as a national resource by designating it the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor.
Blessing and Curse
The Last Green Valley, as the Quinebaug-Shetucket NHC is also known, remains more than 70 percent green due to its forests and farms. Not only does the region have an abundance of land but it also has relatively low land prices. It is located within one hour of three of the four largest urban centers in New England -- Boston, Mass., Hartford, Conn., and Providence, R.I. -- and a one-hour commute has become an attractive trade-off to many who covet the quality of life and quality of place available in The Last Green Valley. Development pressure grows exponentially each year, especially from single-family, large-lot subdivisions. The lowest mortgage rates in decades are fueling development, even in a difficult economy.
New England has no county government system. Land-use decisions are made on the local level, and most of the Quinebaug-Shetucket’s 35 towns are small and volunteer- run with no professional planning staff. Three have no zoning at all.
No Regulatory Authority
Quinebaug-Shetucket Heritage Corridor, Inc., (QSHC) the nonprofit management entity for the national heritage corridor, has no regulatory authority. It pursues its mission by acting as a catalyst to promote partnerships, serving as an educator and facilitator to motivate independent actions that will accomplish the mission, and acting through specific projects and programs when it is apparent that QSHC, Inc., is the most appropriate entity to undertake critical work.
It was clear from the beginning that if QSHC, Inc., were to influence positive changes in land-use decisions, it must develop a system for delivering information and services to those who made these decisions -- landowners, land trusts, municipal officials and volunteers, developers, and real estate agents.
The Corridor Circuit Rider
As a first attempt to provide assistance to the local governments, QSHC, Inc., and the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension Service entered into an innovative partnership to underwrite a position for a land-use/community- planning educator, or “circuit rider,” to work directly with individual members of municipal boards and commissions. The first order of business was to conduct a needs assessment of that audience. It garnered a 35 percent response and the results were used to focus the educational effort of the corridor circuit rider.
The corridor circuit rider provided current and cutting-edge information to foster sound stewardship of the land and natural resources, develop greenways, and provide for innovative economic development compatible with the significant resources of The Last Green Valley. The program was very popular and received accolades from many local governments whose capacity was enhanced by the access to the circuit rider.
One of the projects undertaken by the corridor circuit rider was developing a design manual for property owners, developers, and local governments for National Scenic Byway Route 169. Another focus was a continuing education program for the volunteers working in natural resources, land-use, and community design to foster widespread and intelligent conservation ethics within The Last Green Valley. The circuit rider published a quarterly newsletter and prepared a series of 20- minute presentations on hot topics that could be brought to any meeting of a local board or commission, complete with useful handouts. The circuit rider became a popular and reliable resource.
The Community Compact
In February 2002 leaders from the 35 towns of The Last Green Valley came together to sign the Community Compact, a non-binding document showing each town’s acceptance of the goals and objectives of Vision 2010: A Ten- Year Plan and expressing their commitment to balance conservation and growth by:
• protecting and enhancing the nationally significant resources of the National Heritage Corridor;
• sustaining and connecting diverse habitats and rural landscapes throughout the National Heritage Corridor;
• ensuring the long-term social, economic, and environmental health and vitality of the communities of the National Heritage Corridor.
This unprecedented collective affirmation of both the work of QSHC, Inc., and the necessity for all towns to work together toward common goals encouraged the expansion of the corridor circuit rider program.
The Green Valley Institute Program
The University of Connecticut College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Cooperative Extension Service, located in The Last Green Valley, shared QSHC, Inc.’s concern for the future of the region. Several educational projects had been launched with the corridor circuit rider related to town plans for conservation and development. The two entities began a joint venture called the Green Valley Institute (GVI), a comprehensive program of information management, continuing education, volunteer recruitment and training, and technical assistance in natural resources and land use. From its inception, the goals of the Green Valley Institute have been to improve the knowledge base from which land-use and natural resource decisions are made, and to build local capacity to protect and manage natural resources as the region grows.
In addition to the formal relationship between QSHC and the University of Connecticut, Cooperative Extension Service, there are strong partnerships with the University of Massachusetts, Cooperative Extension Service and many other nonprofits and local, regional, and state agencies to develop and deliver the programming.
The GVI Program has four primary components: the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Data Center; comprehensive continuing education; volunteer recruitment, training, and support; and technical assistance.
The GIS Data Center makes current land-use and natural resource data available to towns, land trusts, and others for use in planning and decision- making. In many cases, this service has saved local governments considerable funds in preparing updated plans of conservation and development, as required by the states. It has also been a useful tool for QSHC, Inc., in illustrating the precise nature of the considerable resources of The Last Green Valley.
The GVI maintains a hectic schedule of practical and applied educational programs, some given annually and others when the need arises. It has offered an annual conference on Conservation Planning and Action, a series of workshops on protecting family lands from development, and an annual weekend retreat to train conservation volunteers.
Since volunteers make up the majority of the workforce in land-use planning and conservation, GVI has developed a system for recruiting prospective volunteers, providing them with essential education, and making new recruits available through a clearinghouse that matches the volunteer with an opportunity for service.
The GVI staff includes several specialists in community planning and estate planning/ land protection. These staff members help landowners and communities develop site-specific plans for land conservation and development capacity.
Accomplishments and Recognition
The following results were measured in 2002 as positive outcomes of the Green Valley Institute:
• Hundreds of individuals were educated and are now at work in local venues.
• Cooperative natural resource inventory projects were completed in multi-town units and will indicate the direction of future planning.
• “Your Family Lands: Legacy or Memory?” -- a workshop on estate planning -- was offered for private landowners; a follow-up survey with a 40 percent response rate indicated that more than 1,678 acres of land are now under protection as a result of the program.
• The Green Valley Brush Brigade, a conservation swat-team of volunteers, made themselves available to land trusts and other entities that needed on-the-ground assistance and donated 400 hours to conservation in 2002.
Only in its second year, the Green Valley Institute was presented with the Connecticut Greenways Council’s Outstanding Education Award in May 2002. Later in the year, the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects gave the GVI’s program “Development Alternatives that Conserve Open Space” its Honor Award in Communications. In December, the Northeast Extension Directors’ Association presented GVI with its award for the Outstanding Cooperative Extension System Program in the 12 northeastern states.
The Challenge Ahead
At the beginning of a new century and with the abundance of existing resources, the people of The Last Green Valley have an unprecedented opportunity to celebrate and conserve the region. Unlike in surrounding areas that have already been overdeveloped, the people here still have the chance to make thoughtful decisions regarding quality of life and quality of place. But the clock is ticking. With reductions in federal, state, and local resources, it will take innovative partnerships like the Green Valley Institute to preserve the Last Green Valley.
Publication Date: Summer 2003