Lyme selectmen to take state to court in bid to save ferries

Lyme - The Board of Selectmen voted Monday to take legal action to try and stop the state from shutting down the state's two historic ferries.

The action, to be filed by Town Attorney Kenneth McKeever in Hartford Superior Court, will be an administrative appeal of the state Department of Transportation's decision to lay off the eight employees of the Chester-Hadlyme and Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferries. The town is trying obtain a stay of the decision, First Selectman Ralph Eno said Tuesday.

Lyme will be the lead plaintiff in the case, but the towns of Chester, East Haddam and Rocky Hill as well as the Connecticut River Estuary Regional Planning Agency (CRERPA) have all verbally committed to backing Lyme up in the appeal, Eno said.

"We're small," Eno said of Lyme. "Our government structure allows us to move pretty quickly."

Residents and ferry supporters have loudly opposed the ferry closures and encouraged ferry passengers to voice their discontent with state officials and the governor's office. But until the Lyme selectmen voted to take the issue to court, there was no formal plan of action to keep the ferries open.

Lyme must file its appeal as soon as possible because the town is attempting to put the brakes on layoffs that are scheduled to go into effect Aug. 25, Eno said. He estimated the ferries would run through around Aug. 11 before they are put in drydock.

Eno said the state violated two state laws when it issued layoff notices to the ferry employees, five of whom work on the Chester-Hadlyme ferry. One states that the state Commissioner of Transportation" will maintain and operate the ferries at the state's expense.

The second reads that before the state makes any changes to a scenic road - Route 148 in both Chester and Hadlyme carries the designation, and the ferry route is a continuation of that state road over the river - it must first publish a public notice in a newspaper and then allow for a period of public comment.

The state did neither before issuing the layoffs Thursday, Eno said.

Lyme officials are hoping the legal action at least bides the ferries enough time for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to work out a new concessions agreement with state unions, who on Monday amended their bylaws to make labor contract changes easier. Union concessions could undo some of the thousands of layoffs Malloy has issued. "We can't wait," Eno said. "Even though SEBAC has amended the process, given the timeline of the layoffs . we can't wait for that to happen."

The ferries are often threatened by budget cuts, and this budget cycle was no exception. Early this year, it appeared they would remain funded in the new biennial budget. But a failed concessions agreement with state union leaders signaled new threats to the longstanding river service.

The Hadlyme Public Hall Association and its member Humphrey Tyler have led the continuing effort to keep the ferries, the older of which has been running since the 1600s, open. The association held an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss how supporters could keep the ferry operations from being shut down.

As they waited for a "CBS Early Show" crew to film the Hadlyme ferry landing Tuesday, ferry supporters handed out postcards to passengers encouraging them to call state officials and the governor's office to ask that they keep the ferries running.

j.cho@theday.com

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