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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    Legislation would provide a path forward for Tri Town Trail

    Participants in a fun run move through a trail in the woods during the grand opening of the northern section of the Tri Town Trail at Preston Community Park in Oct. 2021. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Participants run over a bridge in a fun run during the grand opening of the northern section of the Tri Town Trail at Preston Community Park in Oct. 2021. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    After being stymied for more than 20 years – longer than it took the Lewis and Clark Expedition to reach the Pacific Ocean, workers to dig the Panama Canal, or hikers to establish the Appalachian Trail – volunteers hoping to complete a 14-mile footpath between Preston and Groton may finally be getting a welcome push in the right direction.

    State Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, D-Groton, announced this week that he plans to introduce legislation that would provide hikers with controlled access to all Connecticut reservoirs.

    “More people should be allowed to enjoy these wonderful resources,” Bumgardner said.

    If passed, the bill would connect a key link to the Tri Town Trail through reservoir property in Ledyard that is owned by the City of Groton. Right now, only about four miles of the trail are open – two miles at its northern end, from Preston Community Park to the former Joe Clark Farm in Ledyard; and two miles at the southern terminus, within Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton. The reservoir land lies between these sections.

    The Groton City Utilities Commission, concerned about the security of its public water supply and other potential pitfalls that were cited in a consultant’s report last year, has long resisted efforts to allow access to this land.

    Just last month, the commission voted 3-2 to halt discussions with the Tri Town Trail Association over access issues.

    City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick, who chairs the Utilities Commission and voted to cease further talks, was skeptical of Bumgardner’s proposal.

    “I have a problem with legislators coming up with unfunded mandates,” Hedrick said, claiming that if passed, the legislation would force Groton Utilities to pay for added security and jeopardize public health. Hedrick also said hikers already have access to the reservoir property – as long as they call Groton Utilities in advance to arrange for an official escort.

    Bumgardner said the bill would provide funds for utilities to upgrade security around their reservoirs, such as installing surveillance cameras. He also stressed that the legislation would not offer hikers “unfettered access” to reservoirs, but “controlled access” that would safeguard water quality.

    There would be public hearings and other opportunities to discuss the bill long before it came to a vote, he added.

    Bumgardner praised Groton Utilities’ commitment to safety and expressed confidence that the legislation can be implemented satisfactorily at its Ledyard reservoir property.

    Hedrick and Bumgardner are political adversaries. Before he was elected to the state legislature, Bumgardner, then a Groton town councilor, upset Hedrick by five votes in a 2021 Democratic primary for the city mayor candidacy. Hedrick then ran as a write-in candidate and defeated Bumgardner in the general election. This year, Hedrick is running unopposed for what he said will be his last term as mayor.

    Like many outdoor enthusiasts, I care more about hiking than I do about local politics. I agree with how Tom Olson, vice president of the trail association, reacted to Bumgardner’s proposal to increase access to all Connecticut reservoir properties.

    “It’s is a great idea,” he told me. “What’s good for the rest of the state is good for Groton.”

    Olsen and other association members have been working tirelessly to establish, maintain and improve the trail. Two years ago, I joined Tom and a crew of other volunteers to build a 38-foot bridge across a muddy gully in the Tri Town Trail. The experience deepened my respect, admiration and appreciation for those who volunteer labor, donate money and spend countless additional hours planning ways to make trails safer, accessible and enjoyable for generations of hikers.

    I understand Mayor Hedrick’s concerns about security, but remind him that consultants reported 11 of 26 water utilities in the state already allow recreational access, without apparent negative consequences. Fourteen other utilities restrict access; the access policy of one utility was unknown. Here’s a link to the report: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Y_Bwy85THh7HRcBm9Qt857bcGND5qoaA/view?usp=drive_link

    What’s more, almost a year ago, friends and I spent a rewarding day hiking on a well-marked path with fabulous water views, in the company of runners, bicyclists, parents pushing strollers and senior citizens leaning on canes.

    We were strolling on 3,000 acres of reservoir land in West Hartford owned by the Metropolitan District Commission, which offers walkers, joggers and cycleists free access to more than 30 miles of paved and gravel trails. As I wrote in a column then, this resource should be the model for southeastern Connecticut, as well as the rest of the state.

    I’ve also joined escorted hikes through the Ledyard reservoir property – it’s an extraordinarily pristine parcel, surrounded by tall evergreens, evoking visions of a forest reminiscent of northern New England.

    I would enjoy seeing more people hiking there, whatever action is required – new legislation, renewed negotiations between utility officials and the trail association, or, what Karen Parkinson, the trail association’s president calls, “simple, common sense.”

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