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Old Lyme Harbor Commission meets to discuss access to the Black Hall River

Board Declares Black Hall River Launch Open to the Public Amid Debate Over Use, Control 

OLD LYME – Despite posted “No Trespassing” signs and a heated debate about the complex history and jurisdiction over town-owned open space that was formerly used as a boat launch along the Black Hall River, the head of the Harbor Management Commission said Tuesday that residents should feel free to use the property as of this moment.

“To be clear, right now that is town property that is open to the public,” commission Chairman Chris Staab said of the Buttonball Road site during a Town Hall meeting. “If I went down there and sat on a stump, that’s the same as me sitting out here on a park bench. Town property is town property. There’s no town jurisdiction saying you can’t be on that property.”

Whether the long-dormant, 3-acre site should be reopened to paddlers, and which town board should decide its fate, has been the subject of much controversy in recent weeks. 

After a lengthy discussion Tuesday, the Harbor Management Commission voted to present a plan to the Board of Selectmen at its next meeting to clear a small parking area and a walking path to the water’s edge to allow scenic viewing and perhaps to hand-carry a kayak across a short section of marsh to the river.

Once that access is established, the town can decide with resident input whether building a small platform to cross the marsh and other low-impact improvements are appropriate. 

“We need to understand the feasibility if there is actual water access in that property,” Staab said. “It’s very clear that it’s our mission to provide access to the waterway, whether it’s scenic, passive, or kayaking.”

The 36-1 Buttonball Road site was sold to the state in 1958 by the McGowan family and was used as an informal boat launch for about the next two decades. 

The location of the open space outlined in blue (credit: Google Map Data, 2022)

Situated between the Black Hall Club and a private home, the land 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 facilitate that access. 

The move to reopen the issue of access began last winter when members of the Harbor Management Commission said the site was “discovered” during a survey of town-owned waterfront properties.

But last week, members of the town Open Space Commission told the Board of Selectmen that the property should fall under the Open Space Commission’s jurisdiction and that the property was too environmentally-sensitive to be used by the public.

Harbor management Commission member Michael Barnes said Tuesday that he is consulting with public-access officials from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which deeded the property to the town on the condition it be used for recreational water access.

“They have now taken notice of this and want to make sure it’s all true with what their wishes are as far as the land donation,” Barnes said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

A DEEP analyst recently visited the site informally with Barnes and members of the Open Space Commission and indicated the agency would likely approve installation of a short wooden platform to gain access to the water.

No permits would be required for the town to immediately clear a parking area and path on the property, Barnes said.

The commission also agreed that “No Trespassing” signs hung on trees at the site’s entrance off Buttonball Road should be repositioned to dispel any perception that access is prohibited.

The signs were installed by the adjoining Black Hall Club, and paid for by Amanda Blair, the abutting neighbor and co-chair of the Open Space Commission.

The club, which owns the access road and surrounding property close to Buttonball Road, says the site has been used for illegal swimming and dumping of trash. The town has deeded access to the site.

Blair has recused herself from any formal decisions on the matter, but has continued to be involved as a private citizen. 

Commission member Thomas Kelo said the club has agreed to the suggestion about the signs.

“All we’re asking them to do is have the signs facing sideways,” so people don’t think access to the town-owned site is forbidden, he said. “The point is to open up the property.” 

The renewed dispute over the use of the site echoes controversy more than six decades ago when neighboring landowners sued the state over its original purchase of the property from the McGowan family. 

That case was settled by the Connecticut Supreme Court, which in 1961 ruled that the sale was appropriate in order to “provide access to the Black Hall River and a place where members of the public may leave their automobiles (and) launch their boats.”

Staab noted Tuesday that the issue has prompted many emails to the commission and letters in local newspapers in support of reopening the launch, and he wants the town to consider all opinions before a final outcome is decided. 

“Whatever this plan should be,” he said, “we need resident input and we need abutter input to ensure we’re doing what’s right for the community and the space – and getting public access to that space.”

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