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Connecticut has more than 600 miles of tidal shoreline, but access to this most precious of state assets remains out of reach for too many residents. More than 40 years after activist Ned Coll began storming Connecticut's private beaches with groups of inner city children to call attention to the vast amount of off-limits coastline in the state, and 13 years after a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling opened municipally owned beaches to the general public, beach and coastal access restrictions ranging from severely limited parking to exorbitant admission fees remain fairly commonplace.
In light of this, construction of the Niantic Bay Overlook, a major achievement of the East Lyme Public Trust Foundation, is that much more remarkable. The overlook is a 1.1-mile, public and handicapped accessible shoreline walkway close to downtown Niantic and stretching from the Hole in the Wall Beach to the Niantic River railroad bridge. Together with McCook Point, it forms an impressively long stretch of publicly accessible shorefront now visited by some 60,000 annually. Besides the general public benefit of this, Niantic businesses embrace the park because of the boost it's brought them.
After repeated damage in past storms, the overlook should move closer to completion over the next few weeks with construction expected to begin.
Numerous donors, residents, volunteers, state and local officials, along with representatives of Amtrak, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Environmental Development and others banded together for 20 years to make this project a reality. Andy Pappas and Jay Gionet certainly deserve recognition for setting this project in motion and founding the trust in the mid-1990s. Equally as deserving of praise is Robert DeSanto, who recently stepped down after serving 10 years as president of the Public Trust Foundation. He led the group as it kept the project moving forward even as it faced major storm destruction; a local, state and federal regulatory maze; a vocal opposition wary of non-resident visitors and innumerable design and engineering challenges.
DeSanto and members of his executive committee became regular breakfast-time fixtures in the front booth of the SeaShell restaurant as they discussed issues and problem-solved, always with an unwavering focus of pushing forward the project aimed at realizing a nearly 150-year-old town commitment to increasing public shoreline access.
Said DeSanto recently: "We were like a bunch of beavers. We just kept chewing away at (the project)."
The project is expected to cost $4.4 million, using a collection of insurance payments for damage from past storms, settlements of litigation involving construction flaws and federal disaster aid.
This time, it appears, planners have designed a walkway that should be able to withstand even severe ocean storms.
Of course, it seems that nothing with government involvement can go forward without a hitch. East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica said Thursday that the town would like to extract some funding from Amtrak for a portion of the project, a $400,000 embankment to block future storm surges, because the feature will protect the railroad tracks as well as the walkway. Mr. Formica made the comments at the annual state of East Lyme breakfast hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.
A long delay is not anticipated and thanks to all the volunteer efforts, the boardwalk will represent a substantial addition to public shoreline access in a coastal state that doesn't have enough of it. More shoreline communities need to figure out ways to open their waterfronts to the people.
Joseph Legg, a member of the trust since 2006 who took over its leadership after DeSanto stepped down, understands his predecessor set a high bar for him. He called DeSanto's dedication to the overlook and other trust projects impressive and said the trust's main focus in the immediate future is seeing the park and walkway through to completion.
Legg said he viewed this pursuit as carrying on a dream. This is one example of how the dream of a truly open and accessible public shoreline can also be reality.