Person of the Week
RWA Renames Recreational Program for Claire Bennitt
In a ceremony at Lake Saltonstall, South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (RWA) renamed its recreation program the Claire C. Bennitt Recreation Program, honoring the Branford resident for all she's done to protect open space and share her love of the outdoors with others. Pictured with Claire (center) are RWA President and CEO Larry L. Bingaman (left) and RWA Board of Directors Chair Anthony DiSalvo (right). (Photo courtesy of the Regional Water Authority)
RWA Renames Recreational Program for Bennitt
Claire C. Bennitt was a stay-at-home mom of four in Northford when she first heard the news: Faced with the federal Clean Water Act, the New Haven Water Company was considering selling off open space to pay for newly required surface water filtration.
"About a geographic one-third of the town was owned by the New Haven Water Company," recalls Claire, who grew up enjoying Cheshire's great outdoors and summered in a Branford family cottage. As a Northford resident, she valued the town's vast tracts of undeveloped, open spaces.
"That open space would probably face extreme forms of development, which raised the hackles of people. Another question was, how would they protect the land and water that remained?"
Without much more than her passionate conviction that the land needed to be conserved, Claire signed on with a small group seeking ways to protect the water company's abundant open spaces. That group eventually distilled into four men and one woman (Claire) who decided to go forward as a public body. It took nearly 10 years of hard work, lobbying, and dedication, but, in 1980, they succeeded. As the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (RWA), the new board of directors signed the lease for the former New Haven Water Company land.
"Every once in a while, [by] doing the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time…the outcome is astounding," says Claire, who moved to Branford from Northford in 1974.
But the effort produced much more than a public company. Today, there's a vast system of recreational public space on RWA land. For Claire, that by-product is her great reward.
"When it went public, we were obligated to open it up to the public and that created a tremendous resource. There has been a dual use of the property, which has worked out extremely well."
On its 27,000 acres, RWA invites public use while still protecting the quality of its drinking water supply. As an RWA board member, Claire helped map out the best use of the property.
"The land use plan fascinated me. We wanted to respond to a real public outcry for public land; we did not want to have it sit behind a fence."
Today, nature's waiting to be discovered on RWA's trail network, amid nine recreation areas in 11 communities. Hiking, jogging, cross-country skiing, nature walking, bird-watching, or just visiting scenic areas are among the non-invasive activities encouraged. Bicycle riding's permitted on nearly 20 miles of trails; horseback riding's allowed in two areas. Fishing's allowed on 17 miles of rivers and streams and in Lake Saltonstall, Lake Chamberlain, and Maltby Lakes.
This month, after 32 years on the RWA Board, Claire officially stepped down.
"It's time for younger people who are more representative of the constituency," she says.
But before that, in November, Claire was honored by the RWA for her work in conserving and celebrating its open spaces. A ceremony at the Lake Saltonstall Recreation Area marked the official renaming of the company's recreation program to "The Claire C. Bennitt Recreation Program of the RWA."
"It's a wonderful, overwhelming honor. I not only didn't expect it, I'm not sure I deserve it…A tremendous number of people were involved in creating this," says Claire.
As she steps away from helping guide conservation of RWA land, Claire's only concern is that future generations will continue to appreciate and protect its resources.
"We take drinking water for granted and don't give it the respect it needs. We take the watershed land for granted and we shouldn't. There are laws in place now to protect the watershed, but laws can be changed. It is a constant worry."