OLD LYME – Whether kayak and canoe access should be reopened at a dormant town-owned boat launch along the Black Hall River was debated Thursday at a joint meeting of three town boards with jurisdiction over the site.
No decisions were made at the hour-long meeting of the Board of Selectmen, the Harbor Management Commission and the Open Space Commission that was called after members of the harbor management board proposed reopening the launch off Buttonball Road.
The proposal would involve installing a narrow wooden platform across a section of relatively high and dry salt marsh in order to reach the launch point on Horseneck Creek a short paddle from the river.
Chris Staab, co-chair of the harbor commission, said one of the board’s main purposes is to increase public access to town waterways, and that he has received significant support from residents for the proposal as word of it has spread.
“The calls and the emails and the messages I’ve gotten from the town have been dramatic,” he said. “People want access to this property. I’ve heard stories from residents where they used to go canoeing there. They used to go kayaking with their dad. This is a spot that has been open for years and only recently has it been shut down.”
The site 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.
The property, which lies between 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, but the town never took steps to improve it.
Staab said he and other commission members have walked the site with an official from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which would have to approve the proposal.
He said the official strongly indicated that he could see no reason why a state permit for the launch would be denied, and that “there’s no environmental impact” on the marsh from it.
Staab also highlighted a 1961 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling on a lawsuit filed by nearby landowners opposed to the property being sold to the state by the McGowan family for water access to recreation.
He read aloud a portion of the ruling upholding the sale that said the state properly acquired the site “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.”
Black Hall Club superintendent Phil Neaton said at the meeting that the club had recently posted No Trespassing signs at the property’s entrance to discourage littering and swimming in a pond just off the driveway, which also leads to the town-owned site and the private home.
“There’s a lot of garbage down there,” Neaton said of the club’s property at the entrance, while acknowledging it is now relatively clean. “Refrigerators, tires, building materials. It’s quite a dump site. I’ve got everything – beer bottles, diapers.”
Staab said he plans to ask the Board of Selectmen to order the No Trespassing signs be removed.
“They’re put up illegally and they’re not accurate,” he said. “The town owns that property. I’d also like the Board of Selectmen to ask the property abutters to stop cutting down trees on the town property. I’d like that to stop.”
First Selectman Tim Griswold said he was concerned that reinstituting public access would also produce an increase in litter – and a cost to the town to clean it up.
“It has to be managed. You can’t just say we’ll let the town do it,” Griswold said. “The town means who, what, what budget et cetera? Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised if people don’t come there very often. And of course, the more it’s discussed publicly and with conflict and stuff the more people say, ‘I want to go look at this’ and now it creates more public interest. So we have to be smart and sensible.”
Evan Griswold, who sits on the Open Space Commission expressed similar reservations, and noted that the property was deeded by the state to what was then the open space committee of the town Conservation Commission.
“The jurisdiction on this is a little fuzzy,” he said. “So that’s something that I think the Board of Selectmen and perhaps the town as a whole should figure out.”
He also said that while the Open Space Commission “certainly isn’t opposed to public access,” it is concerned about preserving salt marshes like the one on the site.
Whether the spot provides a good launch point at low tide was also mentioned by Evan Griswold and other speakers, including Amanda Blair, co-chairman of the open space board who lives directly adjacent to the property.
Just before the meeting ended, she displayed photographs that she said were taken at low tide and show only “one or two inches” of water at the proposed launch.
“That little bit of water, if you get a kayak in there, you probably can go three feet before you hit the mud,” Blair said.
First Selectman Griswold wrapped up the meeting by telling the three boards that it is clear “we’re apart now” and no final decision should be rushed.“I think maybe we can do more research that you all are performing,” Griswold said. “And nobody’s going to pull the trigger and have a grand opening in three weeks. I think we can take our time.”