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Love him or loathe him: Steinke to end remarkable 43-year career as conservation chief

Published 11:24 am, Friday, June 20, 2014

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  • Thomas Steinke, the town's conservation director for 43 years, plans to step down from the job at the end of September. Photo: Contributed Photo / Fairfield Citizen
    Thomas Steinke, the town's conservation director for 43 years, plans to step down from the job at the end of September. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Thomas J. Steinke, the first and only conservation director in Fairfield, plans to retire Sept. 30. In more than four decades on the job, he earned a reputation as one of the foremost -- and formidable -- municipal environmental officials in the state.

Steinke -- revered by local environmentalists and a thorn in the side of developers and their lawyers who often viewed him as an obstructionist -- has filed retirement papers in Sullivan-

Independence Hall. He announced his retirement to the town's Conservation Commission on June 5.

He was hired as conservation director in 1973 by then-First Selectman John J. Sullivan, after serving as the town's open space manager for two years.

Now 70, Steinke began his career in Fairfield shortly after Sullivan spearheaded an effort to buy hundreds of acres in Fairfield that have been set aside as open space properties that Steinke's department would manage. During his conservation director career, Steinke served under six first selectmen -- three Republicans and three Democrats. His current annual salary is $117,996, according to the 2013-14 approved town budget.

Before coming to Fairfield, Steinke earned bachelor's degrees in forest management and wildlife biology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and a master's degree in wildlife ecology in 1975 from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Steinke was unavailable to be interviewed this week.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau said he finds that three facets of Steinke's personality stand out: His ideals and how much he would fight to protect wetlands and open spaces for the long-term benefit of residents; his capacity for work; and his persistence and tenacity in defending and advocating for his positions.

"In many cases, he's had to fight for those beliefs without much support, so it's really a testament to the man that he's been able to keep it going for this many years," Tetreau said. "It really speaks to his strength of principle."

Steinke has "been the lead protector of Fairfield's open spaces and conservation areas, protecting them for generations to come," Tetreau said. "He's definitely going to be hard to replace, as a personality and also as an icon."

Kevin Gumpper, chairman of the Conservation Commission, said Steinke has had a greater impact on the town than anyone in his lifetime, with the exception of Sullivan.

"The town's been blessed to have Tom for these many years," Gumpper said. "He's got great ability, great integrity. He's very smart, he's very able, and very, very dedicated."

Gumpper noted that Steinke has had fervent supporters and detractors, but no one could say Steinke had any goal other than what was good for the town of Fairfield.

"Integrity and dedication would be the two hallmarks of him," he said.

Kathryn Braun, a Fairfield lawyer and Representative Town Meeting member who frequently represents environmental groups, said Steinke routinely wears work boots to work because he goes into the field so often. Braun said she's represented clients in six or seven Fairfield County towns and reports by those communities' conservation staffs on development applications lack the depth and breadth of reports from Steinke and his staff.

"There's no requirement they write 20-, 30-page reports, but they do it routinely, despite (elected officials) cutting back their staff," she said.

Braun said the level of detail in those reports is critical because local environmentalists otherwise would have to hire experts to review development applications. And if they didn't hire experts, Fairfield's Conservation Commission would have to rely on information solely from a developer's consultants.

"You can't see what happens environmentally so much. You really need that expertise," Braun said. "We have a stellar Conservation Department staff and it's because of what Tom has dedicated himself to over the past 43 years.

"That's why our town is so beautiful in so many ways."

Joy Shaw, who developed an educational program known as River Lab for the public schools in the late 1960s, said Steinke is "an irreplaceable man" and "a fantastic gift to this community."

"Yes, there was great appreciation, but not by the whole community as it should have been," Shaw said of Steinke's work. "As so often happens with human imperfection, he was never appreciated to the full extent one would wish. He was appreciated deeply by those who were on the same page as him."

Shaw said Steinke helped her revise the River Lab program, which is geared to students in grades 3 to 6, over the years and was especially helpful with estuaries, which are areas where fresh water and salt water meet; the history of land use in Fairfield, and the history of harbors and how they were used. She said Steinke was recognized for his work in restoring salt water marshes in Fairfield that had dried up after dikes were installed before he was hired for the conservation director's job.

Linda Snelham-Moore, chairman of Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods, which nominated Steinke for the Town Employee of the Year award in 2013, said tide gates Steinke invented, patented and installed prevented flooding from wetlands during significant storms.

"I don't think many people realize that. They were designed for Fairfield, and they work" she said. "They can open them and close them based on what's going on."

Snelham-Moore said Steinke "digs into everything" and that his environmental knowledge of land in town "is really unbelievable."

Marcia Miner, the town historian and a co-founder of the Friends of Open Space in the late 1990s, said Steinke helped the newly formed group in its attempt to continue the land preservation efforts of Sullivan, who served as first selectman from 1959 to 1983.

"He was certainly an extension of the dream (former) First Selectman Sullivan had," Miner said. "Many times I've called him with a question about the town. He just is right there to give his time and expertise. He's just an extraordinary fund of information and what he's done for the town's ecology is mind-blowing."

Miner appreciated how Steinke would set old farm equipment in the town's open spaces after developers discovered abandoed gear on land to be subdivided and didn't want it. She said the horse-drawn plows and farm rakes served as pleasant surprises to many residents who walked in the open spaces.

"Fairfield's going to miss him," Snelham-Moore said. "He has worked above and beyond and for much less pay than he could have gotten in the private sector. Fairfield's been very lucky."

Steinke in 2013 was named Fairfield Town Employee of the Year by the town's Board of Selectmen, an award he was frequently nominated for, but never won, during the tenure of First Selectman Kenneth Flatto, who had instituted the annual award. On the nomination form, Fairfielders Protecting Land and Neighborhoods cited Steinke's work on local conservation and wetlands issues, development and management of the town's shellfish and open space programs and expertise in coastal wetlands restoration.

During the ceremony last December, Steinke also was credited with raising the cleanup standard that Exide Group Inc. has to adhere to in removing lead-contaminated sediment from the Mill River. Dredging of the river is scheduled to begin this summer.

Steinke's career in Fairfield was not without controversy.

Flatto removed Steinke -- and the entire Conservation Department -- from oversight of the Fairfield Metro Center in 2007 after Blackrock Realty LLC, the developer, threatened to sue the town, claiming Steinke was holding up their massive project with unreasonable demands. The town's Board of Finance, around the same time, attempted to cut Steinke's annual salary in half on the pretext that his department wasn't raising enough money from permit fees. Former first selectmen in the 1990s also tried to consolidate the Conservation and Building departments, and Steinke a few years after that raised the ire of some town officials when he said, after extensive research, that land used by the Country Club of Fairfield was public land and should be available for public use.

More recently, the position of wetlands compliance officer in Steinke's department was consolidated with the open space manager's position, which left the department with just three full-time employees, aside from administrative assistants -- Steinke, Town Conservation Administrator Annette Jacobson and Ed Jones, who is in the consolidated position.

Steinke never complained publicly and town officials at the time said Steinke placed a premium on deferring to authority. More recently, town employees who worked with Steinke said he also was a private person and wasn't comfortable being the center of attention.

"I see him as a very shy individual," Miner said. "I don't think he even realizes how much he's done for the town."

Snelham-Moore said Steinke is "a really, really nice guy. He can be a little off-putting, but that's part of his charm."

Tetreau said hiring Steinke's replacement would be a collaborative effort between himself and the Conservation Commission.

True to his nature, Steinke already has prepared a 20-page report that outlines his recommendations on the future of the Conservation Department. The commission is scheduled to review the report at its June 19 meeting.

"I think Tom would be happy everything he's dedicated himself to will continue on after he's retired," Braun said.