Groton officials obscure coastal public access trail in Mystic

I have been an occasional user, over the years, of the elaborate riverfront trail on the Groton side of downtown Mystic, which allows you to walk or jog along much, though not all, of the waterfront between the highway and railroad bridges.

The trail, which is shown in detail on the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's online Connecticut Coastal Access Guide, grew largely out of the 1980 Connecticut Coastal Management Act, which promoted coastal public access for non-water-dependent developments, like condos, on the shoreline.

A post-1980 building boom of condos in downtown Mystic helped create a very public-friendly waterfront, in observance of state law.

I only recently learned, from Richard Fitzgerald, a retired Electric Boat engineer who lives in Mystic, that many of the original signs that marked the trail are missing. He told me he has been trying since 2016 to have them restored, with no success.

That's three years of stonewalling by the town.

I thought, after a walk with Fitzgerald, in which he pointed out the locations of the missing signs, that this must be some kind of misunderstanding. How could the town let this important resource disappear, maybe forever, as Fitzgerald has justifiably come to fear?

After first meeting with Groton Mayor Patrice Granatosky, Town Manager John Burt and planning department staff, and then spending hours reviewing town planning files myself, I see the current town administration is indeed stubbornly and without good reason resisting replacing the original legitimate signs for the trail, paid for with state money and still clearly marked on state maps showing coastal public access.

The mayor and town officials insist there is no legal justification for access at two of the properties that previously were clearly marked with signs approved by the town's Historic District Commission and are on the state maps.

During my meeting, town officials acknowledged that there is indeed legal justification for three places where the signs are missing and they agreed to replace those. The new signs went up last week, much smaller than the originals, not much bigger than a napkin.

More worrisome, the small replacements are in new locations that don't really lead the public to use the waterfront in the way it is entitled to. One missing sign, on a fence on a waterfront boardwalk at the Steamboat Wharf condominiums, which used to literally invite the public to stroll there, has been replaced with a hanky-sized one that gives no clue the public is welcome beyond the fence.

This official re-signing is the shameful response to three years of lobbying by Fitzgerald, a former town zoning commissioner who in his professional career sweated the engineering details of nuclear submarine sea trials.

Fitzgerald also made a plea for help in his efforts to restore the signs to state Sen. Heather Somers of Groton but was told by her staff it was a town issue, even though the state paid for the signs. It seems the senator is more interested in public coastal access in Mystic when it is used as leverage for her proposed $10 million in state money to help her donors build apartments and a hotel on the other side of the river.

The town's last big delaying tactic, in the face of Fitzgerald's yearslong effort, was to commission a $12,000 study by the local landscape architecture firm Kent + Frost, which took a year and recently was submitted to the town.

The study, which creates an interesting new design for marking the trail, does not resolve the access issues that the mayor and town manager say are still outstanding. They say they can't execute the new design without resolving what they say are access issues, and they admit they have done nothing to resolve those issues. It looks like the design study was a waste of money.

The town's own files, however, reveal plenty of justification for the longtime signed access points that officials insist are problematic. Even a Groton schoolchild could tell them the state would not have paid to mark them in the first place if they weren't justified.

At the Power House condominiums, for instance, a variance granted in 1990 for new balconies generated a state DEEP coastal review that concluded that public access "from the street to the water's edge" should be included.

Town staff, in our meeting, dismissed the DEEP letter, noting that it was stamped with a filing date that occurred after the hearing on the balcony application. But the files and meeting minutes show the recommendations were read into the record at the hearing, included in the variance that was approved and cited in a subsequent recording of the decision in land records.

The public walk envisioned by DEEP and used for some time is now marked with no trespassing signs.

There are other references to public access requirements at Power House in the files, and clearly those were used in marking and establishing the access point that still appears on state maps.

The other public access town officials refused to acknowledge allows the public to pass across the property of Fort Rachel Marina, to a vantage point with wide views near the railroad bridge. This access across the boatyard actually appears in files as a deeded public road in land records, the continuation of the now paved part of Water Street.

Town officials, instead of acknowledging this clear public access, defended by previous administrations in a number of proceedings involving the marina, in which objections by marina lawyers were rejected, instead point to a subsequent public easement on a small corner of the property, which they say overrides the significant access across the property clearly set out in deeds and historically asserted by the town.

The third replacement sign the town put up last week, also hanky-sized, not only doesn't indicate the public's broad right to cross the marina property, but it doesn't even help show the available access to the piece of the boatyard that even the access-evasive town officials acknowledge is open to the public.

I have never seen, in all my years of reporting, such an affront to the public as the attempted elimination of this important public resource in downtown Mystic.

It makes you wonder who is being protected and why.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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