Canton officials ask finance board to reconsider plan for riverfront property purchase
By John Fitts
CANTON – The Board of Selectmen voted Wednesday evening to formally request that the town’s finance board reconsider a plan to purchase a riverfront parcel that would provide both public river access and parking.
Selectmen previously referred the matter to the Board of Finance – hoping to set a Town Meeting at which voters could potentially approve the plan. However, the finance board failed to pass the measure – deadlocking with a 3-3 vote after some its members raised concerns about the details of the plan.
Specifically, the town has the option to purchase 37 Bridge Street in Collinsville from the state Department of Transportation for $125,000. The 2.25-acre parcel at 37 Bridge St. includes most of the parking lot adjacent to 41 Bridge Street – where Bridge Street Live, the Collinsville Artisan Co-Op, Blumen Laden and others operate – and a portion of land along the riverbank behind 39 Bridge Street, where Collinsville Canoe and Kayak operates. It also includes roughly half of the paved boat launch area. The adjacent parcels at 39 and 41 Bridge St. are both owned by Waterfront Preservation and Management Corp.
Under the current plan the town, after purchasing 37 Bridge St., would convey a portion closest to 41 Bridge Street – used largely for access and parking - to owners there, in exchange for the privately owned portion of the existing boat ramp. A “spur” in 37 Bridge parcel – leftover from rail-bed configuration – would also be conveyed to the 39 Bridge Street parcel.
Cross easements would then allow the public to “permanently” access the town-owned parking area and ramp – and the area needed to navigate back and forth, while also allowing the owners of Collinsville Canoe and Kayak to also continue utilizing the boat ramp, officials said.
On March 30, the Board of Selectmen voted to forward the $160,000 plan – which includes the property, as well as guardrail and signage to separate and denote public areas – to the Board of Finance.
At the finance board’s April 18 meeting, however, some members objected to conveying the area near 41 Bridge Street to the building’s owners.
Board of Finance member Tom Blatchley said he favored the town purchasing 37 Bridge St., but spoke strongly against the plan, saying the town was giving away too much valuable land, potentially landlocking what it would own in the event of easement issues, and gifting too much to a private business. He said the town, instead, should lease the parking area to the owners of 41 Bridge St., similar to what the state has done for so many years. He also said the exchange of the spur for a portion of the boat ramp was a fair trade and said the town is in a strong position to negotiate a better deal.
“The benefit here is to 41 and 39 and it’s a massive windfall and I’m very hesitant and reluctant to give up ownership. Certainly, we could work out any type of arrangement for 39 and 41 – for access and parking – but I don’t understand why we should give up real property,” he said at one point during a long discussion that evening. “What’s the benefit to the town? We get access? We already have access.”
Town officials, however, contended there was more than meets the eye when it comes to the plan, noting, for example that the public benefits in ways beyond those parts of the parcel. For example, officials have emphasized that the public would retain the right to cross over a large section of the private property between the parking area and the boat launch.
While the state first approached the town in the Spring of 2019, it was June of 2021, after approval of six state agencies, that it formally offered to sell 37 Bridge to the town for $125,000.
In late summer of 2021, town officials formally reached out to abutters, according to town documents, which acknowledge there were several concerns about lease agreements for the land, property values, logistics, security, and delineation of public and private areas.
Potential overcrowding and negative effects on the daily Collinsville Canoe and Kayak operation were also noted (Officials have acknowledged ongoing concerns from that business).
A previous plan for the parcel would have retained more land for the town and further easements but selectmen had concerns about some of the details, the complexity of it and potential impacts to businesses.
Advocates say the current plan would also put that parking area back on the tax rolls and avoid potentially issues over who can utilize parking immediately adjacent to 41 Bridge.
At the April 18 Board of Finance meeting, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner referenced the planned ADA accessible the town is working on upriver at the public works site. As part of the town’s plan, – approved by the Board of Finance in December and town meeting in January - $340,000 was set aside for an ADA accessible ramp at 50 Old River Road near the Public Works facility.
“To give you an example of the value of that boat ramp - for us to build a boat ramp over by the DPW facility, the estimate is about [$340,000],” Skinner said at the April 18 meeting.
First Selectman Bob Bessel has said that river access, parking and ensuring the local businesses were not negatively affected have been the objectives of the Board of Selectmen - and the River Access Subcommittee – from the very beginning.
“We saw a lot of value in conveying [the 41 Bridge parking area] over to them so that it would maintain value for their piece of property, for the eventual conveyance of that property to some other owner and also eliminate the strenuous objections that they raised to us having this property and doing some kind of lease arrangement or even an easement,” Bessel said April 18 BOF meeting. “When we presented it to them was accepted wholeheartedly. We didn’t see any value to the town in having that piece of property. The real value to us was parking, which we get in the back, and river access, which we have by fully owning the boat ramp.”
Other Board of Finance members also expressed concerns with the plan. Andrew Lavery asked several questions, supported the concept of the town purchase but also noted concerns over the plan.
“My issue with it wasn’t should the town spend the money – can the town afford the money? I think we can afford the money,” he said. “It’s just I’m not on board with spending the money and then turning around and giving part of the land to a private property owner, essentially buying the land for them. I don’t think that’s a good use of taxpayer funds.”
Finance board member Sarah Faulkner also had reservations about such a “gift” to 41 Bridge St., and expressed disappointment that the plan did not include another easement for additional riverfront property for a potential walkway.
“On the River Access Committee, we had talked about talking to the owners of 41 Bridge for an easement along the river all the way to Route 179… so if we wanted to put in a walkway all along the river corridor, we could do that,” Faulkner said. “I would suggest that that be part of the mix for negotiation. … That, in my mind, would help offset giving them ownership of the driveway coming in.”
Finance board chairman Ken Humphrey also said he saw a lot of value in the boat ramp and noted the long, complex negotiations the town has been involved with.
“I understand we’re having a value change here,” he said. “I understand what everyone is sating but it has to do with value of that square footage and where it’s sitting… and what the town is saying … the boat ramp has equal value that the parking does over at 41.”
BOF member Katie Kenney also raised some concerns but she and Faulkner – the only two Democrats on the Board – joined Humphrey in voting for the plan, expressing concerns that a delay could potentially jeopardize the town’s plans to purchase the property and risk it being put up for bid.
Finance Board member Andrew Ziemba joined Lavery and Blatchley in voting against the plan.
The finance board wasn’t the only entity that raised some objections.
The owners of Collinsville Canoe and Kayak have also expressed concerns about the idea of the boat ramp becoming public and the way that might affect the business operation.
While the Planning and Zoning Commission on April 20 voted in favor of a referral needed for a purchase it came with “the recommendation that the property be kept in whole by the Town of Canton and private businesses may utilize the property for an associated fee.”
Blatchley also spoke again at the April 27 Board of Selectmen meeting and emphasized his previous points and emphasized that the town is working on access at 50 Old River Road near the public works site.
“I don’t think we need two access points what I do think we need is more parking in Collinsville what I do think we need is more transparency and to save our taxpayers dollars and buying land to just turn around and give it to private interests isn’t in the best interest of taxpayers and I don’t think it serves the town well, said Blatchley. Later, he and Bessel briefly exchanged some tense words during the meeting outside of the public comment – about potential solitons and whether the town had been forthcoming in talking about the planned near the Public Works site.
Selectmen, however, at that April 27 meeting stood by the plan and voted to ask the Board of Finance to reconsider the plan, which it is slated to do the evening of May 2.
Bessel talked about the options and reiterated points about the “delicate” negotiations and pointed out that the owners of 41 Bridge St. feels they have worked with the town, offering parking, access and giving up land – without compensation - for the Farmington River Trail that runs alongside their properties.
Selectmen also noted their reluctance to another idea of purchasing the land and figuring out the details later, contending that the public would not go along with a plan to purchase the property without immediate river access.
Selectmen acknowledged that the state doesn’t seem to be putting pressure on the town for an immediate decision, but members reiterated their feelings that the boat ramp ownership was a valuable commodity, and their feeling that the arrangement was a good one for everyone and that the issue should go to the voters at town meeting.
“I would hope that the Board of Finance would reconsider the proposal as we presented it and think about it a little more and present it to the town and let the residents decide,” said Selectman Bill Volovski. “For all the time I’ve been on the board, every year that we put out requests for comments on the capital improvement plan, what we should be spending town money on. Every year the issue of river access comes up. …We’ve gotten a lot of interest from people in town that want to take more advantage of the river. I hate to ever characterize things as a once in a lifetime opportunity, but this is as close as you get. For the purchase price of this property to have 6- or 700 feet of river frontage in downtown Collinsville at that kind reasonable cost it is like a once in a lifetime opportunity for the town. And, like it said, I think it fulfills a lot of goals that we have for both river access and parking. It does it in such a way that we’re being very sensitive to the needs of the abutting businesses. We don’t want to hurt those businesses in any way and like I said, I think this was very well negotiated by Mr. Skinner and Mr. Bessel. It was obviously a very delicate situation. …. I would hope that the BOF would reconsider their decision and put forward for a town meeting and let the residents decide.”
Even if the 37 Bridge Street plan does move forward, free public river access might be at least several months away. The plan would require some final plans, paperwork and state review and officials estimate it would be several month’s time to schedule a closing.
Meanwhile, work continues on the other potential access.
Triton Environmental is currently working to finalize draft plans – based on initial review and suggestions from the River Access Committee – for the ARPA funded accessible ramp at the 50 Old River Road site. However, several additional steps are needed in that process, including some level of review and/or permitting by town boards, commissions and agencies, as well as the state department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Town officials have expressed some hope that the process could be finished this year but have acknowledged that access at that site is more likely to come in 2023.