Neighbors are arguing and temperatures are rising over the first proposed section of the Shoreline Greenway Trail (SGT) in Guilford. More than 250 residents packed into the community center on Nov. 1 to debate the proposed trail at public hearing, and while the Board of Selectmen (BOS) did not take a vote on the trail, residents passionately argued for and against the trail for hours.
The SGT is envisioned as a 25-mile continuous path designed for cyclists, walkers, and hikers. The first section of the trail proposed in Guilford could be 0.7 miles long and would link the East River Bridge to the junction of Boston Street and Route 1. The project is estimated to cost $840,055 and $875,000 has been secured in the form of state and federal grants to fund the project.
At the Sept. 19 BOS meeting, the board was expected to vote on whether or not to send the first section of the trail forward to the Planning & Zoning Commission (PZC) for Coastal Area Management (CAM) approval. However, after residents turned out to argue for and against the trail, the BOS elected to hold a public hearing to share more information.
The Guilford proposal has run into significant opposition from abutting property owners and other residents expressing concerns over, among other things, the lack of an overall plan, excess costs, and property rights. Expecting a heated debate, First Selectman Joe Mazza set the tone of the meeting early.
“Please keep in mind we are all friends and neighbors of Guilford,” he said. “Please respect everyone’s right to speak and everyone’s opinion. I don’t want to have to say that again. We are all friends here.”
Town Engineer Jim Portley, who has been working with the SGT Committee to finalize plans for the first section of the trail, spoke at the hearing to share information on the history of the trail and project details.
“The path will be 8- to 10 feet in width with a paved surface and a stone chip-seal finish,” he said. “The trail will be located entirely in the Route 1 right-of-way—there will be no need to build a trail on any private property. A grading easement is required from two abutting properties for trail construction. One of those easements has been secured and the other one is in the process.”
A grading easement is needed where either digging down or building up for the trail bed would affect the slope of abutting property.
Numerous residents and business owners came to speak against the proposed trail. Yogesh Patel, who owns the Comfort Inn and the Tower Inn on Boston Post Road, said he was concerned about how the path would affect his business.
“No one even showed us a map and certainly no one asked for our approval,” he said. “We have been left entirely in the dark about a plan that could bring pedestrian and bike traffic right up our front door.”
Resident Dolores Hayden, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, stressed the need for a complete trail plan.
“I can tell you all that it is both common sense and best professional practice to establish a complete plan before ground is broken on any part of a major public project,” she said. “One may chose to construct in phases, but first a complete plan is essential.
Jonathan Leete Page said he, too, wants to see a complete plan and that more information needs to be shared with the public.
“It looks to me like Guilford is getting half a mile of free sidewalk,” he said. “To cross Guilford, there are miles and miles of uncharted territory where we have no idea where this trail is going.”
While only the Route 1 section of the trail has been proposed, many questions have been raised about where the trail will continue through town, particularly if it will continue down Route 146.
Reading a statement on behalf of the Leete family, which have owned property in town for more than 350 years, William H. Leete said, “We wish to state deliberately that our family corporations have no intention of granting SGT easements to cross any portions of our respective land holdings for their proposed bike road...Running a bike path through our property is fundamentally incompatible with our use of land for agriculture and livestock.”
Carleton Granbery echoed concerns about the possible seizure of property to complete the trail.
“Every generation seems to bring another special interest group that has a better idea than my family about the best use of our property,” he said. “I will not grant an easement for this recreational bicycle initiative to come through my property, so the only way that our selectman can achieve the SGT’s goal would be to condone the use of eminent domain.”
Mazza has previously stated that eminent domain would not be considered for future trail development.
While a majority of the crowd at the hearing seemed to be opposed to the trail, a significant number of residents and SGT Committee members stood up to speak in support of the trail. Guilford SGT Team Co-Chair Pam Bisbee Simonds, who previously described the trail as a safe, beautiful, off-road trail along busy Route 1, said this trail is a safety need in town.
“Guilford is a wonderful place to live with many charms but there is absolutely no safe route for biking,” she said. “I am committed to SGT’s goal to improve bike and pedestrian safety in our town.”
SGT board member and Outreach Co-chair Peter Hawes, a self-described avid biker, said the trail offers a way to connect people and communities along the shoreline.
“What I find compelling about what SGT is doing is less the notion of a 25-mile continuous trail than the string of bike- and pedestrian-friendly communities connected with one another, someday maybe if possible, but within themselves, safer, healthier, more economically vital, and ever more appealing to young families and those of us who are older today,” he said.
Stories of people injured while biking were prominent throughout the public hearing. Resident Kimberly Schmid presented a petition at the hearing with more than 1,000 signatures, 776 of which were from Guilford residents, supporting the trail and its goal.
“They all view this project as a wonderful addition to the town that they love,” she said. “Many of those who have signed the petition are parents like myself who are simply looking for a safe place to bike in Guilford…Guilford needs this.”
David Knapp said the trail would be an asset to the town.
“If we build this one section and never build another, my belief is it is worth every penny,” he said. “Anyone who doesn’t believe this [should] go and walk the Hammonasset [SGT section] in Madison. I did. It was mobbed with dogs, with young people, with old people, senior citizens, and other people and you have to go a long way to see a happier, more joyful group.”
While property rights dominated significant portions of the debate, David Jones, who lives on Route 1 within the proposed section, said he supports this section of the trail for the added safety benefit—even if it means the trail cuts through his front lawn.
“The State of Connecticut owns the buffer along the highway and almost half of my front yard is owned by the state. I knew that when I purchased the home,” he said. “This new pathway will seriously crowd me—it is 23 feet away from my dinning room windows and it consumes what people would consider one-third of my front yard, so yes, in some ways it is a bummer. But I support the plan. It fits the primary legal obligation of the town to promote the health, safety, and welfare of the community. The stretch of highway in front of my house is extremely dangerous to pedestrians, bikes, cars, and trucks and not to mention the skunks and the raccoons. This pathway would make this stretch much less lethal…Life is dangerous, but occasionally an opportunity arises to make the world a little safer. You are considering one of those right now.”
The BOS will continue discussions on the SGT at a meeting to be announced.