The future of environmentalism in Connecticut just might be economic development.
At the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters' 12th Annual Environmental Summit in Hartford Tuesday afternoon, it was growth, not blocking bulldozers, that got the old hands and activists chattering.
Sure, it was obvious Tuesday that some in the tree-hugging community are still steamed at the Malloy administration's failure to do enough to protect a state-owned conservation tract in the infamous Haddam Land Swap. And yes, cyclists still want more proof that the state Department of Transportation cares about something more than autos and pavement.
It's about long-cherished causes for some — I heard plenty of the usual about water quality, open space and climate change Tuesday — but there was plenty of fresh conversation about supporting growth close to cities, bus and train stations and near neighborhoods where people can walk more.
More than anything, in a time when jobs and a weak economy are the top priority, many in the go-green crowd assembled on the 11th floor of the old G. Fox building seemed optimistic about a future where stuff gets built here.
In the middle of an endless recession, when I thought I would walk into another jobs vs. environmental protection debate, who would have guessed?
"It's not retrenchment,'' Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel Esty said when we spoke before he addressed the meeting and he told me that the environment is now also about energy and the economy. "We have an opportunity to remake environmental protection for the 21st century. You can't focus on the environment in isolation.''
So it was fascinating to see commissioners of economic development and transportation — not exactly the heroes of the enviro crowd in the old days — featured as honored guests.
"People come here because of the quality of life,'' said Catherine Smith, the commissioner of economic and community development. "We have choices."
Smith told me about a large company (one she would not name) that the state is negotiating with about moving to Connecticut. Economic development officials are pushing an urban location, when once the option might have been a large suburban development. "If they build downtown, they are going to have access to local transit," Smith said.
Much of the excitement at the meeting was about the potential of new development at stops along the busway, which will run fromNew Britain to Hartford and be linked, like a major artery, to a network of bus routes throughout nearby suburban towns.
Transportation Commissioner James Redecker talked of a future with a unified, understandable and more efficient bus transportation system that will arrive with the completion of the busway in a few years. An essential part of this is promoting development near a busway or, in Fairfield County, a MetroNorth stop.
"By encouraging density around transportation centers, you are much more likely to preserve traditional Connecticut towns,'' said Peter L. Malkin, a panelist whose commercial and housing developments are located adjacent to the Stamford train station.
"We've got to encourage the development … of commercial centers around transit centers,'' said Malkin, who presides over a company that oversees more than 11.4 million square feet of commercial office and retail space around the country. "More people are commuting from New York into Fairfield County than out of Fairfield County into New York."
To be fair, the environmentalists assembled Tuesday weren't giving up their old causes. They were worried about the DEEP's ability to enforce laws and other worrisome problems such as the biological "dead zones" that exist out in Long Island Sound. Wood-burning furnaces, air quality in cities, pesticides and mercury thermometers all remain top concerns.
But the real news is the undeniable excitement about economic growth and environmental protection working together.
It's not that "you can have one or the other,'' said Tom Swarr, chairman of the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. "It has to be both."