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Amtrak's secret: The cost of a metal barrier along a Stonington preserve

I reached out to Amtrak this past week because I was interested in learning more about the enormous, black, metal, prison-like fence that has been erected along one side of one of my favorites of the Avalonia Land Conservancy nature preserves.

The fence, along the entire southern border of the 16-acre Knox Preserve, was built by Amtrak starting in October, presumably to stop hikers from crossing the Northeast Corridor tracks and walking the privately owned, undeveloped Fishers Island Sound beachfront on the other side.

The fence is ugly. And it blocks much of the remarkable view from the nature preserve, which Avalonia volunteers beautifully curate, maintaining more than a mile of trails and large open fields of wildflowers that attract nesting birds like the purple martin.

The ominous-looking fence is especially incongruous in such a magnificent natural setting.

It is the most egregious at a southernmost knell on the property, where it obscures a spectacular view down the Sound, a site so special that the Mystic Rotary Club erected a bench there in 2017, so that visitors could sit and admire the view.

Now the view of the industrial-looking fence is the most prominent thing you see from the Rotary bench.

I understand the worry about the safety issue of trespassers crossing the tracks there. I do wonder, though, about the many miles of unfenced rail line throughout eastern Connecticut and how this came to be the piece so thoroughly fortified.

Imagine my surprise when I heard back from Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams, who told me, in response to my question about how much the long fence cost, that he couldn't "share the cost."

I reminded him that this was public money, and that maybe he could check back with his boss and be sure he really couldn't share. He was adamant they would not tell me how much it cost.

Abrams told me the project was initiated by Amtrak Police, at the request of the owner of the nearby hiking trail.

This turned out not to be true.

I checked with Avalonia and was told that, though the organization doesn't like the look of the fence, it understands the decision to keep people off the tracks. But the conservancy absolutely never complained to Amtrak or asked for the fence, I was told.

I suspect some influential neighbor was involved. How else could it have happened?

When I told Abrams that the owner of the trails did not ask for the fence, he said he would check on who did and get back to me. I never heard from him again.

I suspect the project was embarrassingly expensive, especially since Amtrak can't even say who requested it and never consulted with the adjacent property owner about its installation.

I reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-2nd District, because I thought the congressman should be able to easily find out how much the fence cost. His helpful spokesman said Wednesday he would be glad to help, but by Friday afternoon, he told me he was still not able to get the number and would get back to me.

I don't know what's more troubling, the fact that a publicly funded railroad refuses to say how much it spent on an elaborate fence project that creates an eyesore in a nature preserve, or that our congressman can't seem to find out either.

I don't plan to let it rest.

Knox Preserve lovers like myself will get used to the fence, as ugly as it may be. It still can't overwhelm the natural beauty of the place.

Meanwhile, I can't emphasize enough what a wonderful place it makes for a hiking visit, with a trail that leads along a saltwater cove, through groves and along impressive stone walls.

Despite the ugly fence, there are still beautiful vistas down the Sound.

The preserve is land once owned by a founder of Stonington, Thomas Minor, and it includes a cemetery for the Minor family. The site was purchased by David D. Knox in 1968, to stop plans to build a magnesium plant there. He eventually donated it for public use.

It is lovingly tended by Avalonia volunteers, who help academics from Connecticut colleges to do research there on the birds, animal wildlife and marsh.

There's plenty of parking on Wilcox Road, near its intersection with Route 1 and Cove Road.

Plan a visit. Enjoy and try not to let Amtrak's fence and its secret cost ruin the experience.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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