OLD LYME – Returning public kayak and canoe access to a prime and long-dormant boat launch along the Black Hall River is being explored by the town Harbor Management Commission – a proposal the First Selectman says needs wider scrutiny.
The 3-acre property off Buttonball Road, abutting the Black Hall Club and a private home, was deeded by the state to the town in 2002 under a provision that it be used for recreational access to the river.
It was sold to the state in 1958 by the McGowan family, which owned extensive property in the area including gravel pits, and was used as an informal boat launch for about the next two decades.
Harbor Management Commission members Michael Magee and Michael Barnes said the parcel was discovered to be town-owned about two months ago when commission members were conducting an inventory of all municipal waterfront properties with an eye toward increasing public access to them.
“It’s been a secret,” Magee said of the property as he and Barnes walked it on Tuesday.
Barnes, who owns a marina in town, said access to the river would be from a launch point on Horseneck Creek that borders the parcel, possibly including a dock of less than 100 feet across a salt marsh.
“This is attractive because it gives you a different perspective and vantage point that you can’t achieve anywhere else,” he said of the west-facing site. “This is probably one of the nicest pieces of town-owned land that could support this – if not the nicest.”
The property, which includes an old gravel road leading to the water that served as a boat launch, has become overgrown over the years.
Clearing the brush and dead trees in the two-acre wooded section, as well as invasive species like an expanse of tall phragmites reeds at the edge of the marsh, would improve both the view and the health of the wetlands, Barnes said.
“This was already all completely cleared with a ramp down to the water,” Barnes said of its condition when owned by the state. “It would be a good opportunity to go in and remove any of the invasive species so that the wetlands could colonize more and you could get more of your views back.”
Magee, who chairs the Kayak Launching and Storage Committee of the harbor-management board, said no motor boats would be allowed to use the launch, which would provide an alternative for kayakers and canoeists to the aged, state-owned Smith Neck Road boat landing about a mile downriver.
He said paddlers putting in at Smith Neck often have to fight a strong outgoing tide into nearby Long Island Sound when trying to get up the Black Hall River.
“People are worn out before they even get to this stretch of the river and they just want to turn around and go back,” said Magee, an avid kayaker who noted that it is in the commission’s charge to increase public access to waterways. “We’d like to be able to get in the water up here because then you could explore up here.”
Magee said vehicles dropping off boats would be restricted to relatively high ground on the existing gravel road, noting that all such environmental considerations are administered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“The DEEP determines what you can touch and can’t touch and we would abide by their rules and regulations,” he said.
First Selectman Tim Griswold said he is aware of the proposal and the deed provision regarding recreational access, but believes the issue is more complex than that.
Setting visitor hours, trying to ensure people don’t walk in the marsh, dealing with trash left behind and whether the area would require town supervision are among the areas that Griswold said require “a robust discussion” among all relevant town boards.
“I don’t think Harbor Management has carte blanche to just go ahead and make something happen without getting, you know, everybody’s opinion on it,” he said. “Access to the area is wonderful, but sometimes people are not too good about caring for the environment, leaving trash behind and all that. I think we just have to look very carefully at how it’s opened up and if it becomes a destination or any kind of thing like that.”
Griswold said the Black Hall Club has placed No Trespassing signs at the entrance to the property within sight of Buttonball Road, where people have been known to swim in former gravel pits that are now used as irrigation ponds for the club’s golf course.
One of the town boards Griswold mentioned that he would like to see involved in the discussion about the proposal is the Open Space Commission.
“I know a couple of the Open Space folks think it would be a bad outcome if there was a need for strict supervision and so forth,” he said. “I think we need to hear both sides of the story.”
The Open Space Commission is chaired by the homeowner whose lot directly abuts the site, Amanda Blair.
Blair’s driveway and town access to the proposed boat launch area both run through an easement granted by the Black Hall Club.
She did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
It is not the first time that recreational use of the property has come under debate.
Soon after the William and Mildred McGowan family sold the site to the former state Board of Fisheries and Game for $5,300 to be used as access to fishing and hunting in the Black Hall and Connecticut rivers and on nearby state-owned Great Island, riverfront landowners sued the state to prevent it.
When a lower court ruled against the landowners, they took it to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
On July 25, 1961, the high court issued its ruling that it was within the state board’s purview to acquire the property “to provide access to the Black Hall River and a place where members of the public may leave their automobiles, launch their boats and, by descending the river, reach the hunting grounds on Great Island and other duck hunting and fishing areas in the Connecticut River and adjacent waters.”