OLD LYME – The multi-front battle over a Buttonball Road kayak launch reached an apparent cease fire at Monday’s Board of Selectmen meeting, where three town boards agreed to form a joint committee designed to ease tension over use and control of the 3-acre property along the Black Hall River.
“I think we’ve got to get cooperation with the groups and people have been kind of doing things separately,” First Selectman Tim Griswold said of the Open Space, Harbor Management and Inland Wetlands commissions. “I still feel the friction and all that and I think we need to get to the point where we’re moving forward in a direction step-by-step.”
Griswold’s comments came after a lengthy discussion about which board should have jurisdiction over the long-dormant 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.
It is now under control of the Open Space Commission, whose co-chair, Amanda Blair, lives directly adjacent to it and has expressed reservations about reopening it to public use.
That has led to allegations that the property has been effectively kept under wraps for decades until the Harbor Management Commission brought it to public attention earlier this year.
“When it’s the property next to the co-chair of Open Space that has been actively hidden with ‘No Trespassing’ signs, it doesn’t look good on the optics,” Inland Wetlands Commission Chair Rachel Gaudio said at the meeting, adding that public access to the launch has been “thwarted for more than 20 years.”
Blair did not attend the meeting.
Her co-chair, Evan Griswold, acknowledged Monday that the site “was kind of a sleeper,” for many years.
He also said he was concerned that the dispute between the three boards may set a precedent that if the commission acquires future properties, “another commission in town can come in and say, well, we want something else.”
Still, he said he favors reopening the launch despite his opinion that it provides “marginal, at best” water access for kayaks and canoes due to tidal issues and that it may contain endangered species of plants and animals.
“I have no problem with people accessing that property,” he said.
Members of all three boards agreed to form a working group consisting of two members of each commission that would oversee an environmental study of the site by a third party before any further action is taken – including a designation by the Selectmen of which board controls it.
“I think before any money is spent, the commissions and the town need to know who has jurisdiction of this property,” Gaudio said, adding that the dispute has created “animosity” among the boards.
Harbor Management Commission member Michael Presti presented the selectmen with a proposal to open the property in phases after a study is done.
Removing underbrush and improving the gravel driveway leading to the water where boats could be put in would be followed by installing signs, a wooden rail boundary fence and clearing a parking spot for a maximum of ten cars, he said.
The final phase, if approved by state environmental officials, would be to erect a low-lying platform across a short section of salt marsh to ease the launching of non-motorized boats.
“This will ensure the property is brought back into use as intended after being dormant for so long,” Presti said.
Another lingering issue raised at the meeting were “No Trespassing” signs posted on trees at the Buttonball Road entrance driveway to the site.
The driveway and abutting property are owned by the neighboring Black Hall Club, which granted easements giving the town and Blair access to the inner property.
Blair has said she bought the signs for the club earlier this year to try to prevent trespassers from partying and dumping trash on club property.
The Harbor Management Commission last month asked that the signs be turned so they do not create a perception that residents are banned from using the driveway.
“They are still facing the road as you come in,” Shoemaker said Monday.
Selectman Griswold said his office would contact the club about adjusting the signs.
Shoemaker also stressed that resolving issues of communication and transparency between the boards is paramount to reaching an agreement on how to proceed.
“As a former school teacher,” she said, “I’d like all of you to play together in the sandbox nicely with each other.”