OLD LYME – It may have been one of the largest gatherings for years at a town-owned scenic overlook of the Black Hall River.
But it wasn’t the sparkling evening or the spectacular view across the shimmering green salt marsh toward nearby Long Island Sound that drew the group of ten town officials and others to the Buttonball Road site on Thursday.
The hour-long outing was the first official meeting of the 36-1 Buttonball Road Property Committee, officially named Tuesday by the Board of Selectmen to come up with a plan for use of the 3-acre property that has essentially been off the map for decades.
“It is a beautiful view,” Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission member Mike Miller said as he stood with the group on a narrow path that was once part of a boat launch that the marsh long ago began reclaiming.
“Look at this spot – it’s gorgeous,” agreed Michael Barnes, a member of the Harbor Management Commission and perhaps the driving force behind the effort to reopen access to the site for paddlers and other low-impact recreation. “It’s too nice to not be open to the public.”
Formation of the joint committee and the site walk came after months of debate over which town board has jurisdiction over the property, officially designated as town open-space, and what its future use should be.
“I think we need to consider all options,” through a cautious, structured approach, Open Space Commission member Michael Aurelia said to other committee members after squishing out into the marsh wearing high rubber boots and carrying a long metal probe to inspect the depth of natural peat atop gravel used to build the former launch.
Other committee members are Sloan Danenhower from the harbor management board, and John Meesham from the inland wetlands board.
The group was accompanied by Selectmen Matt Ward and Martha Shoemaker, who more than once reminded the committee that it was there to observe and discuss the property, but not to make any decisions about it.
“It’s an informational, keep your thoughts to yourself kind of thing,” Shoemaker said.
The property was 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.
Also along for the tour was Amanda Blair, co-chair of the open space board, who lives directly next to the site and has expressed reservations about reopening it to public use.
That has led to allegations that the property has been kept under wraps for decades until the harbor management board brought it to public attention earlier this year.
After initially refusing to do so, Blair most recently recused herself from any official action on the matter.
“I’m here as an independent person,” Blair told the group as it gathered along a gravel entrance to the property that also serves as the driveway to the house she lives in just yards away.
The committee then walked back to the entrance on Buttonball Road, marked only by “No Trespassing” signs that were bought by Blair and hung by the Black Hall Club, which owns the driveway and has granted an easement along it to provide access to the town and Blair.
Members of the harbor management board had asked this spring that the signs be turned so they do not create a perception that residents are banned from using the driveway, but they remained facing the entrance Thursday.
As the group headed back toward the river, Blair remarked about the osprey, heron and other wildlife that inhabit the immediate area.
The new committee will oversee a third-party survey and environmental analysis of the site, which is partially wooded and overgrown with brush.
The committee will also make recommendations on what immediate steps might be taken to improve the area for public access before a more detailed plan for any recreational use is considered.
Barnes led the group to the water’s edge, pointing out a huge stand of phragmites, a tall invasive reed that is partially blocking the view to the south from the property.
“Getting rid of this ‘phrag’ will open up the view and help out the environment at the same time,” he said.
The group also discussed clearing a small parking area for perhaps 10 to 15 cars in a grassy spot off the driveway that directly borders the Blair property.
“We don’t want 200 people parking down here,” said Fred Behringer, another member of the open space board.
There also has been discussion about building a low-lying platform across a short section of salt marsh to ease the launching of non-motorized boats – which would have to be approved by state environmental officials.
Noting that the kayak access at the site is not ideal at low-tide, Aurelia said a boat launch may not be practical, but the property should be improved and open in any case.
“It’s gorgeous, and at the minimum we should make it a viewing spot,” he said. “At the minimum.”