OLD LYME – Concerns that reopening a kayak launch along the Black Hall River could turn the 3-acre site into “Central Park” were aired at a Monday meeting of the Open Space Commission that continued the spirited debate between several town boards over the fate of the property.
“I don’t think it needs to be a park,” Commission co-chair Evan Griswold said after the board voted to pay for an environmental assessment of the site off Buttonball Road before any final decision is made on its future use. “It should be as natural as possible. There is some habitat there that I think, you know, we don’t need to turn it into Central Park.”
That comment during the remote-video meeting drew a quick response from Terri Lewis, vice-chair of the Harbor Management Commission, which ignited the debate when members recently proposed reopening the long-dormant launch along a salt marsh.
“I feel like in the beginning of these conversations and even a little bit now that you’re looking for something, anything, to not allow access to this property at all,” Lewis said, directing her remarks specifically at Griswold and co-chair Amanda Blair, who lives next to the site. “I just feel the vibe from where you’re coming from, Evan and Amanda personally because that’s all I’m hearing right now, is that you really don’t want anybody down there. I’m sure there’s a way to be able to get people in our town to view, let alone use, the property.”
Griswold replied, “We are not opposed to public access and we just want to make sure that whatever public access takes place is not detrimental to the property. And that’s the way we approach all of our properties, whether it’s 300 acres or three acres.”
Blair, who previously had recused herself from any decisions on the matter, reversed that decision Tuesday after consulting with a lawyer.
“In a small town, there are so many overlapping interests,” Blair said, reading from notes. “The standards are, do I have a financial benefit concerning this property, and the answer is no. I do not, nor am I connected with anyone who would benefit.”
Blair said the house where she lives, which abuts the open space, is owned by a family trust.
She also addressed the posting of “No Trespassing” signs at the entrance of the property, a long gravel driveway that is owned by the neighboring Black Hall Club, which granted easements to reach the house and for the town to access the site in question.
Explaining that she did not post the signs herself, Blair said she bought them for the club “to deter the constant acts of vandalism and ATV activity and trespassing,” on adjacent club property including a pond.
“Since the signs were being torn down on a regular basis, and I was going to Home Depot, I picked up the two signs as a courtesy to my neighbor,” Blair said. “I have never denied public access to the property under review.”
Blair then voted with the rest of the board to seek an environmental assessment of the property, as requested by the Board of Selectmen.
Open Space Commission member Greg Futoma responded to statements by members of the Harbor Management Commission and others that the boat launch site – sold by the McGowan family to the state in 1958 and then deeded back to the town in 2002 under the condition it be used for recreational water access – had been effectively under wraps for decades until the Harbor Management Commission brought it to public attention.
“There’s been a lot of allegations this property has been hidden and a quote ‘secret’ and so forth,” Futoma said. “I am in favor of access to property. But our commission’s charter is pretty clear that we have to weigh access by the public with impact on nature. And that’s not to say that that access won’t be possible in this particular instance, but we’re still going through the process of doing that,” with the environmental assessment.
That study will determine the property’s boundary lines, as well as catalog plant and animal species and the amount of wetland soils on the site.
Griswold said he wants to ensure that reopening the launch would not jeopardize any endangered species and be “even more dire for the salt marsh than what is already happening,” with natural degradation.
He said the property is deemed “critical habitat” for certain species by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“It may well be it may not be, but we want to have an independent assessment on its habitat qualities,” he said. “One of the things that I would be most interested in is making sure that whatever happens and whoever does it in town, that it’s done properly, that it’s done with care, and with the idea that we’re protecting the natural world in a way that benefits everybody.”
The commission plans to present its choice to the Board of Selectman at its June 6 meeting.
Chris Staab, chair of the Harbor Management Commission, and Inland Wetlands Commission chair Rachel Gaudio requested Monday that their boards be included in the process of selecting a contractor to perform the assessment, while acknowledging the friction between the boards.
“I hope that Open Space and the other commissions cooperate and not work in an antagonistic fashion,” said Staab, who last week said residents could begin using the launch immediately. “I look forward to working with all three commissions to get this space open to the public and get some access for our residents.”