Super 7: A real threat then, unfathomable today

(Editors' note: The previous installment of Mr. Mitchell's recounting of how Super 7 ground to a halt reviewed the verdict in the lawsuit — victory for the Committee to Stop Route 7 — the ensuing appeals and the highway's status today.)

The Committee to Stop Route 7 was not the first to sue for injunction against super highways. There were no confrontations at the courthouse door. There was no calling out of the National Guard. No one demonstrated or chained themselves to trees or lay prostrate in front of construction equipment.

Instead, a thoughtful and determined group of citizens went to court, made their case, secured their injunction and completely stopped the construction of Super 7 for half a century, maybe forever.

Even though the suit caused no physical confrontation, members of the Committee to Stop Route 7 had to, nevertheless, demonstrate great courage and chutzpah.

These were a few ordinary citizens taking on the combined ambitions and resources of the governments of the United States of America and the State of Connecticut. They had to convince a federal court judge, not some local or friendly state magistrate. There were many friends, neighbors and town officials who were angry or derisive of their efforts. While there was precedent at court, all the players on both sides and the judge were new to the infant law. The full majesty of the federal and state governments was arrayed against just a few citizens from a small town.

The Committee to Stop Route 7 went from decision to sue, to trial, to injunction in less than 45 days, spending less than $20,000 in legal fees.

Stunning by today's standard — or any standard.

The Founders would be proud their Constitution and its invocation in Wilton 181 years after its ratification were applied so carefully and fully.

Diane Haavind, vice chairman, the day-to-day face and voice for the Committee to Stop Route 7, sums it up: "I was gratified but not surprised in 1972 when the law was upheld and the injunction issued. I was educated in journalism and fine arts. When we moved to Wilton in 1968, I wanted to paint the area's landscape. Rather than paint the landscape, I would try to save it."

In looking back 40 years, Bob Morgan, the chairman of the Committee to Stop Route 7, is ever-wary of Super 7 construction. "It was an interesting, educational, and challenging experience fighting the State of Connecticut over Super 7. I was fortunate to be associated with dedicated and very able associates. But be aware. The state still owns the land and it's possible that Super 7 may come alive again like a dangerous snake sleeping under a rock."

Where are they now?

The Committee to Stop Route 7 went out of business almost immediately after the injunction was issued. While many of the same people continued their efforts to stop construction, the members changed their name to Citizens for a Balanced Environment and Transportation or CBET. The new name, in the view of the members, better reflected several positive cultural goals rather than stopping one road.

Chester Rice died in 1981. Caroline Rice died in 1999. Ann Caggiano died in 2006. All three saw the de facto death of Super 7 in Wilton.

Bob Morgan still lives in the same house in Wilton as he did in 1965.

Diane Haavind lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Attorney Haynes Johnson is retired and lives in North Andover, Mass. Attorney Alphonse Noe is retired and lives in Weston.

Federal Judge Jon O. Newman was elevated from federal district judge to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where he has served since 1979. He served as chief judge from 1993 to 1997. He assumed senior status in 1997.

John Hickey is retired and lives in Lanesborough, Mass. — less than a mile from Route 7 (local, two lanes).

My participation

I moved to Wilton in August 1970. I was a financial and rhetorical supporter of the Committee to Stop Route 7 from its formation. I was not a leader. I did contribute $250 and went to the meetings of both the committee and ConnDOT.

My participation in the Committee to Stop Route 7 was driven by simple and selfish motives. The ConnDOT hearings in September 1970, March 1971 and January 1972 were appalling to me regarding the stunning impact that construction of Super 7 would have on the environment and culture of Wilton. I decided then to support efforts to stop the road.

In a karmic way, I have many connections to the fate of Super 7. I lived for 29 years on Collinswood Road. This road would have been within 1,000 yards of Super 7. My access to fuel, food, railroad and Town Center would have been via Olmstead Hill Road at the Allen's Meadow interchange. One of the leaders of the Committee to Stop Route 7, Doris Hurdman, moved next door to me in the 1970s. We remained warm friends for the rest of her life. Since 1999, I've lived on Indian Hill Road. Super 7 would have been within 500 yards of my house if constructed.

I was police commissioner in Wilton for 16 years. The Police Commission is also the legal traffic authority with statutory authority to deal with all traffic issues in Wilton. In May 1999, the first selectman asked me to write to ConnDOT's Bureau Chief of Policy & Planning on behalf of town officials to object to the state's plan to extend the road from Grist Mill, where it ends today, 1,000 yards north into Wilton to end at Kent Road. Imagine the connector as we know it today having its terminus at Kent Road. My letter of May 3, 1999 asserted five reasons that deemed the Kent Road extension of the Route 7 connector a threat to safety for civilian drivers as well as an enforcement and response nightmare for Wilton police, fire and EMS responders. We never heard a response. The Kent Road extension was never discussed again.

Regarding the formation and membership of the committee, geography made us neighbors; ConnDOT made us partners; Super 7 made us gag; Congress made us plaintiffs; and Judge Newman made us victorious.

What if...

If Super 7 had been built as designed in 1972, Wilton would be a far different town than it is today. The road and at least two interchanges would have brought quick access and exit from the town's entire length. There would be more development of residences and commercial buildings. There would be less through-traffic on existing Route 7.

However, experience in every other town where such a road has been built testifies there would also have been many wetlands destroyed; a big increase in highway noise and traffic from trucks and other vehicles; the permanent amputation and dead-ending of many local roads cut off by Super 7's construction; an increase in population connected to the increased development; a huge increase in the need for Wilton police, fire and EMS personnel to address the increase in vehicles in emergency response to incidents; an increase — not a decrease — in Wilton's average daily vehicle count when combining both Super 7 and existing Route 7 as well as on town roads driven by local and through-traffic; and, finally, a cultural shift of tectonic proportions given a Route 95-type highway slicing right up the middle of the town.

If building more and bigger roads could drive down road congestion, California would have no traffic jams. The reality is that more and bigger roads beget more traffic and development, which together generate calls for more and bigger roads.

In large part, this vicious circle of more roads creating the need for more roads was the spark for the Committee to Stop Route 7 to seek and secure the injunction in 1972. Many Wiltonians believe the committee's resolute action was the most important decision in the history of our town because it stopped construction of a road that would have taken our culture from the small town it remains today, to transform it into "just one more stop on the interstate."

This injunction halted in its tracks that titanic change 40 years ago last month.

This is the final installment of the retrospective of the movement that stopped Route 7. Bo Mitchell has lived in Wilton since 1970. He was police commissioner from 1984 to 2001. Currently, he is a certified emergency manager serving as a consultant to companies nationwide.