Fairfield County residents who are excited about the construction of a bike trail through town will need to be patient, as it will likely be more than a decade before the proposed Norwalk River Valley Trail is fully completed.
The proposed public-private project, organized three years ago by residents from Norwalk, Wilton, Redding, Ridgefield and Danbury, involves building a 27-mile "recreational" trail from Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk to Danbury, primarily using state-owned lands in the Route 7 corridor.
Two miles of the recreational trail — which is designed for use by bicyclists, runners and walkers — have already been constructed in Norwalk and Wilton, however the remainder still needs to be approved and funded.
During an update before the Wilton Board of Selectmen on Monday, Mike Lindberg, member of the Norwalk River Valley Trail steering committee, said due to land-use and funding challenges the trail will likely need to be built in multiple phases over a period of 10 to 15 years. The steering committee in September received a feasibility study — from the National Recreational Trails Program and administered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection — which maps out a proposed route for the trail. However Lindberg said due to potential land-use issues, the route is still far from set in stone.
About 90 percent of the proposed route through Wilton is on land which state Department of Transportation acquired decades ago for the now-defunct Super 7 highway project, which would have extended the Route 7 Connector to Danbury. Lindberg said the DOT has already given his group permission to build the bike trail on the Super 7 lands — however it is the 10 percent that will need to be on private property that poses potential problems and delays.
Lindberg said in order to build the trail through privately-owned lands, the town would either need to acquire an easement from each respective property owner, or buy the land outright.
Selectman Hal Clark, who is helping to spearhead the project, said while a bike trail "would be a tremendous recreational asset to the town, especially to those residents who live near it... we are not in the business of doing legal takings."
"This is not New London... we are not going to do this through eminent domain," Clark said. "If we wanted to buy a piece of property, the charter requires us to get town approval."
Lindberg, however, pointed out that it might be better for the town to acquire the small amount of private land needed for the trail, as opposed to getting easements, because of liability. He said the DOT will more than likely require the town to purchase additional liability coverage for the sections of the trail on state-owned lands — just as it has for other state properties under its control. Such coverage would cost the town about an additional $2,000 a year, based on current rates, he said.
However if the town only acquires an easement, the property owner could still be on the hook for providing liability coverage, he said.
Selectman Ted Hoffstatter said some of the residents in the Route 7 corridor have already won hard-fought battles to save their properties from eminent domain proceedings brought by the state during the Super 7 proposal, and therefore could react negatively to the bike trail proposal.
"They're going to be saying "'My God is something coming through here again?" Hoffstatter said, adding that effective communication and allowing the public to provide feedback on the project will be important as it moves forward.
Lindberg said the project has already met with some land use challenges — for example in North Wilton there is a 1/4-mile "gap" in the proposed route where the state never acquired any Super 7 land. Lindberg said the committee is looking for some alternative way to bring the trail through that area (from Thunder Lake to Georgetown), however there are currently no properties which can be used to facilitate its construction.
Then there is the question of how the project would be funded: Lindberg said it will be up to each community to establish a public-private partnership in order fund construction. That may or may not involve purchasing land, he said.
As far as maintenance goes, Lindberg said it would be up to the volunteer groups that oversee the trail in each town to keep it clear of litter and debris. He said in instances where the trail comes into a downtown area, the department of public works may wish to plow it and keep it clear of snow (the trails sometimes double as sidewalks in downtown areas). He said in the event there is a storm, the state parks service would assist in clearing storm debris from the trail.
Lindberg said the ultimate goal is to have the trail link with others heading north into the Berkshires — and beyond into Canada. He said the 27-mile stretch being proposed "is very similar in design and scope to trails that have been implemented elsewhere in the Northeast and throughout the country" including the famous Cape Cod Rail Trail.
Lindberg said his group studied similar projects in 12 other towns and found that they benefitted in a number of ways — for example residents' health and quality of life were improved through increased recreation; the trails helped take cars off the road which in turn reduced pollution and traffic congestion; there was a slight reduction in serious crime; and in some areas the trails helped spur businesses development.
What's more in some communities the development of a trail boosted residential property values by 10 to 15 percent, he said.
Lindberg said the group's goal is to bring the trail into each town center — as well as to link it to mass transit wherever possible.
First Selectman William Brennan said although some Wilton residents had "gotten worked up" over the proposal, when it was first announced in 2010, it was "mainly due to misinformation." For that reason he sees communication and community feedback as being critical to the project's success.
"Effective communication is what will alleviate all of these ungrounded fears," Brennan said, adding that in other areas of the country, such trails have become "an important asset to the community."
Lindberg said his group has already held five informational meetings in Wilton to give residents the opportunity to learn more about the project. He said his group will be holding additional forums for residents to provide feedback as the project progresses.
Brennan added that the public will be given ample opportunity to provide feedback as the various phases of project make their way through the local approvals process.