Grant Kicks Off Planning For Long-Awaited Rail Trail
During a public presentation November 7, residents and officials got the first conceptual look at rail trail plans that would eventually extend a much larger trail network from neighboring Monroe, through town to the Fairfield Hills Campus.
Once and if successfully completed, the trail would connect to the Pequonnock Trail, 8.6 miles of existing trail for a 40% total extension. Additionally, it would also connect further south to a trail that extends all the way into Bridgeport and the shoreline.
Design firm Street Plans, with locations in New York City, Miami, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, presented preliminary plans for the 3.6 mile Housatonic Trail Extension, at a presentation hosted by the Parks & Recreation Department and the Land Use Department.
The proposed trail follows along the existing active Housatonic Railway and will traverse 12 parcels of land, most of which are town- or business-owned. A few are owned by private landowners and it’s possible that easements or acquiring portions of land will be necessary.
Paula Burton of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG) noted that the group had received federal money for projects such as this, and had given Newtown $35,000 for the rail trail design plan through the ACTIVECT program for active recreation, while the town incurred no cost.
She noted WestCOG is “very supportive of transportation,” particularly alternative transportation such as bicycling, and that this project is “consistent with our transportation goals” and “aligned with [WestCOG’s] regional goals.”
Parks & Recreation Director Amy Mangold said Newtown lacks many safe biking areas and that this project will help open vital connections for active outdoor activities.
“It will connect the Fairfield Hills Campus to businesses, schools, trails in the Paugussett forest, the dog park, the animal sanctuary, the bike share program, and newly approved bicycle playground, and supports many of the efforts of our sustainable living and age-friendly living community initiatives,” said Mangold.
Deputy Director of Planning Rob Sibley said that “many hands have lifted up” this project, but it was merely the beginning of a “continuing journey towards pedestrian and multi-use transportation opportunities.”
“This creates transportation opportunities beyond getting in a car and driving from point to point,” said Sibley. “This allows people to enjoy walking and biking.”
Sibley noted that the design plan is the “culmination of a 30-year journey,” but also the start of a process that could take another 20 years.
“This is not one project, this is 11 or 12 smaller projects,” said Sibley, who noted that the hope is the work will create a finished trail for the children and grandchildren of those attending the presentation.
Street Plans Principal Mike Lydon said working on the conceptual plan was an “exciting opportunity.” The plan is not a “detailed master plan,” but rather a “first look at what the trail may look like.” The hope is that the conceptual plan will aid the town in seeking further grant funding.
“This is how we go from ‘no trail’ to ‘trail’,” said Lydon. “This is a small but critical step in the process.”
Project Planner Rachel Albetski said that Street Plans had taken a walkthrough of the parts of the proposed trail that are accessible, and after several months of back and forth with the town, worked out the basics of the plan.
“It’s inspiring how long the town has been working on this,” said Albetski. “We’re working on turning that into reality.”
Trail’s Possible Path
Albetski’s presentation highlighted three specific areas of the trail.
The first, the Botsford Hill Pedestrian Overpass, just north of the start of the rail trail extension at Swamp Road, was highlighted because it shows a variety of design and routing challenges faced in planning the trail. This portion of the trail, according to the presentation, runs behind a private home, includes significant slopes, and has to cross Botsford Hill Road either at the road or at a legacy rail overpass.
The proposed solution is to bridge the portion of the trail over Botsford Hill Road, eliminating the need for trail users to navigate the intersection at a grade. The proposal is that the rail company upgrade the existing infrastructure to a modern bridge, one that is “capable of servicing the railway line and the trail.”
“This investment would provide a much smoother trail experience and ensure the bridge continues to safely support rail operations into the future,” states the presentation.
The second highlighted area is in the area of Ethan Allen Road. The trail runs through an industrial area there. On the west side of the proposed trail right-of-way, there is an abandoned spur of the Housatonic Railway that leads to a large lot now occupied by RV One. Further north, there is an active manufacturing use at the Ethan Allen Services Center and Repair, a furniture repair factory that often receives large truck shipments.
On the east side of the proposed right-of-way is the Newtown Transfer Station.
“The many active industrial uses in this area offer a unique set of challenges for routing the trail,” said Albetski.
Albetski said that a few options were discussed, including paving over the abandoned rail spur, or cutting through the Newtown Transfer Station, which would require re-purposing some of the town-owned land for the trail passage. It was ultimately decided to cut through the transfer station, which will require the trail to cross the railway. The crossing of the railway will be at a 90-degree angle, to prevent bike tires from becoming caught in the flangeway grooves.
The last area highlighted was the portion that links to the Fairfield Hills Campus, which is not directly along the railway and has a couple of unique challenges to get there. There is a relatively flat property that could have been used but Albetski said the property, the Batchelder property, has “brownfield implications” and Street Plans decided to avoid it. Additionally, another area to the south had wetlands that would have to be traversed.
The FFH Connection
Street Plans as well as the town also wanted the rail trail to connect into the Fairfield Hills Campus’ own trail system, which would allow pedestrians and bikers to connect from Fairfield Hills into the rail trail. The trail extension will be sent to a graded area that is in some areas near a 50-degree grade. This will require a switchback section of the trail to be built to mitigate the grade.
Additionally, the town will need to work with residents along Mile Hill Road South to route the trail.
“This is a great first step,” said Albetski. “It has been such a long way to get here, and there is such a long way to go.”
Albetski noted that it would be important to get the community behind the project, not only for any easements that would be needed, but also public interest would assist the town in gaining additional grants to help with the project. Working to find funding is the important next step for the trail extension, said Albetski.
“There are many opportunities out there for grants, both federally and locally,” said Albetski.
A resident asked how property owners would be compensated for any land that might be needed for the trail.
Sibley answered that the town would approach any residents necessary for an easement or land transfer, which a resident could refuse. If the resident refused, the town would seek a way to reroute the trail in a different way. If the resident agreed, an assessment would be done on the property and the owner would be compensated for any loss of value due to the impact of the easement or transfer.
“There will be no eminent domain or putting anything in a resident’s backyard that they would just have to deal with,” said Sibley. “Nothing like that. If we cannot work something out or the private owner does not agree, we’ll find another way.”
Albetski said that it was likely that no private homeowners would have their property affected, it was mostly businesses and the town. She also noted that 80% to 90% of the trail extension will be following the railway right of way.
Associate Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.