Open Space Claims Jurisdiction Over Waterfront Property in Old Lyme

An aerial view of the site showing the junction of Horseneck Creek and Black Hall River


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OLD LYME — A recently discovered, much-debated town-owned property along the Black Hall River that has garnered attention as a potential public boat launch is, and has been since 2002, under the jurisdiction of the Open Space Commission, according to claims by the commission co-chairs.

“The parcel was pursued from the start to become town open space,” said Open Space co-chairs Amanda Blair and Evan Griswold in a statement read to the Board of Selectmen Monday night. 

Blair and Griswold said that a “careful review” of the 2001 minutes of the Open Space Committee, which was then part of the Conservation Commission, showed how the property was set up.

“The February 9, 2001 minutes show that George James, on behalf of the Open Space Committee, initiated Old Lyme’s request for 36-1 Buttonball Road,” Blair read to the Board of Selectmen. “In February 2002, the parcel was deeded to the town, to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission, Open Space Committee.”

Blair said the town created the Open Space Commission, separate from the Conservation Commission, in 2010. She noted that it was mentioned in the April 10, 2015 minutes that she had been researching properties that were designated open space as a condition of subdivision approval but were not recorded in the town’s land records. 

“Several open space properties were absent from town files. This oversight may be a reason why 36-1 Buttonball Road was not found on town maps,” she told the Board of Selectmen. “In any event, the property’s absence from various maps does not negate its clear designation as open space.”

The Open Space Commission met on April 7 with the Harbor Management Commission and the Board of Selectmen to discuss next steps for the property, which was discovered in January when Harbor Management was inventorying all of the town waterfront properties with the goal of increasing public access.

Blair and Griswold said that while an Open Space Commission provenance is clear, “the Harbor Management Commission’s authority is questionable.”  

“The parcel consists of approximately three acres of dry land, wetlands and salt marsh. The town’s ordinance notes the Harbor Management Commission shall apply from the mean water mark out,’” Blair said. 

She said that at the April 7 meeting, the Board of Selectmen told all parties to “pause” while the board reviewed the issue. 

“Nonetheless, Harbor Management has continued to pursue its plans for the property, irrespective of the Board of Selectmen’s wishes and without respecting the Open Space Commission’s jurisdiction. Last week, the Inland Wetlands Commission conducted a site walk of the property at Harbor Management’s request,” Blair said. 

Blair asked the Board of Selectmen to tell the Harbor Management Commission to cease and desist all of its activity on the property. 

Rachel Gaudio, who is chair of the Inland Wetlands Commission and said she spoke as a private citizen, told the Board of Selectmen that she walked the site last Thursday.  

“There is great access to the water and it’s a great area for our townspeople to have access to both tidal and inland wetlands, very biodiverse – it’s a wonderful educational opportunity,” she said. “The board should make sure access is open.”

Gaudio noted that Blair had recused herself from commenting as Open Space co-chair because she is an abutting property owner. 

However, Blair insisted she is not the owner of the abutting property. In the Old Lyme GIS, the property is owned by the “Amanda A. Blair Trust.”

Michael Barnes, a member of Harbor Management, said that the property has been hidden from the public for 20 years. 

“It seems hypocritical of the Open Space Commission to not be taking advantage of this property and it seems fishy to me that they’re going out of their way to try to prevent access, trying to prevent this from being utilized by the town. And I just think it’s wrong and I think that as the Board of Selectmen you need to do what the deed says — which is provide public access to the Black River. The deed did not come with any kind of conservation easement on it,” he said. 

Blair and Griswold said that the town has entrusted Open Space to manage acquired space lands for passive recreational use, protect and preserve the natural resources and wildlife on such land, and to develop appropriate limitations for the use of such parcels. 

“No one provision takes [precedence] over the others. With the Board of Selectmen’s consent, Open Space would seek expert opinion to balance the benefit of passive recreation with the property’s ecological value,” said Blair, adding a salt marsh assessment would be the priority. 

“I think an evaluation and then dialogue about the property between the state, the town and the selectmen and others – and if it is feasible then it will be managed under the Open Space Commission, like we manage our trails,” said Blair. “It’s our responsibility. It was Open Space that pursued this and acquired it. It is under our jurisdiction.”

Later in the meeting, First Selectman Tim Griswold said he and Chris Staab, chair of the Harbor Commission, had talked about a “modest accommodation” at the property with limited parking and perhaps a bench, but discouraging people from going out on the marsh.

“We want to be very careful, maybe with a split rail fence, and maybe some educational signage… I think we want to go slowly here and listen to different points of view and come up with a good plan, and not let the temperature get up too high,” Griswold said.

Selectman Matt Ward said that it had never been decided who was in charge of the property.

“I think we did say that each group can gather information and come back to us … and that we can make an educated decision based on that information, that’s what I took from that meeting,” Ward said.