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There are two different Mystics for coastal access

An important anniversary for the region slipped by largely unnoticed last month, as the Mystic River Park in Stonington quietly turned 25 on Oct. 24.

Tune in for a proper celebration next October, when COVID-19 is likely safely in the rearview mirror. Park officials made a good call in delaying the celebration for a year.

The park is one of my favorites in the region, not just because it's a pleasant space alongside the Mystic River, an oasis downtown, but because it is a lasting tribute to the power of community spirit.

When the site of the 19th century Cottrell Lumber Yard was going on the auction block in 1993, a group of forward-minded citizens mobilized and put together the park plan. The Mashantucket Pequots, just starting to reap the riches of their new casino, generously put up a bridge loan, so the park enthusiasts could bid at auction, and the Mystic Fire District took on stewardship of the project.

I can't help but compare that community spirit in Stonington, enthusiasm about opening up the Mystic waterfront for all to enjoy, to the exclusive policies about coastal access being carried out on the Groton side of the Mystic River.

It is curious that south of the highway bridge in Mystic, on both the Groton and the Stonington sides, there are wide boardwalks that run for almost the same long distance along the river.

On the Stonington side is the park, where there is also a spacious lawn beside the boardwalk. On the Groton side, the boardwalk, part of a condominium and hotel development, is also legally required to be open to the public. But you'd hardly know it.

I've been following the crusade of retired Electric Boat engineer Richard Fitzgerald of Groton, who has spent years trying to get Groton officials to keep up and restore a coastal access trail in Mystic that was long ago laid out and marked by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Despite Fitzgerald's nagging, the town has been remiss for years in maintaining the trail and its markers. The town also has shied away from asserting access at two private properties, even though they were long ago marked as public and listed on DEEP trail guides.

The most egregious recent abandonment of this Mystic public access involves the riverfront boardwalk in Groton, directly across from the Mystic River Park on the Stonington side.

The boardwalk was made public at the time the condominiums were built, part of a compromise in state law that requires public access in cases where waterfront property is being used for non-water-dependent uses, an offset.

It should be no secret to those who bought the condominiums when they were built, or to anyone who has purchased one since, that they front on a public walkway.

About halfway down the boardwalk, however, there is a picket fence with a gate that improperly suggests that everything beyond is private.

After some Fitzgerald pestering, a sign eventually was placed directly on the fence, inviting the public to pass through.

When I noticed that sign was missing recently, I brought it to the attention of Town Manager John Burt. I was startled to hear him report back that there never was a sign there.

I then got a picture of it from Fitzgerald, which we are publishing with this column on theday.com.

Even more alarming than Burt's denying that there was ever a sign there, was his suggestion that they would ask the condominium owners if they could put one up. Permission?

I personally don't have much patience, and there seems to be a rash of it in Groton, for people who break the law and take down public access signs.

If I were the town manager, or a town councilor who could tell him what to do, I would order a replacement sign at that fence immediately and warn officials of the condominium association that the next time it disappears, the police will thoroughly investigate.

Better yet, make them take the fence down. It creates a physical barrier on a legally established public right of way. The fence is clearly meant to send a signal to the public to go away.

In fact, how about erecting some benches along the boardwalk, like those in Mystic River Park?

Next time you are in town, stroll all the way down that boardwalk and assert your rights. Take some beach chairs, grab some food downtown and have a picnic.

Groton needs to channel some of the spirit of public coastal access from its neighboring community across the river.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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