Canton residents approve purchase of riverfront property
By John Fitts
CANTON – Despite some recent controversy over plan specifics, town electors, on June 22, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the town’s plan to purchase the 37 Bridge Street property along the Farmington River in Collinsville.
Specifically, voters approved the town’s plan to purchase the 1.53-acre parcel from the state of Connecticut for $125,000 and allocate $35,000 for property improvements such as guardrail and signage to designate public and private parking areas. The $160,000 in funding will come from the town’s reserves and while public river access has been a big issue in town, officials have cautioned that no changes are likely this year as several final steps are needed.
The 37 Bridge St. property runs adjacent to 39 Bridge St. and 41 Bridge St., both owned by Waterfront Preservation and Management Corp. (WPMC).
As currently configured, the 37 Bridge St. parcel includes the entrance and parking area near 41 Bridge St., land along the river behind the Collinsville Canoe and Kayak store (39 Bridge), and approximately half of the paved boat launch area. (See map at right).
Under the town’s plan for the land, the town will convey two parcels totaling .28 acres to WPMC – the parking area near 41 Bridge and an odd land spur (leftover from the railroad days) that juts into the 39 Bridge St. parcel. WPMC in return, will deed the town .13 acres - the balance of the boat launch and a small piece of land concurrent with other public areas along the river.
Cross easements, town officials said, will allow the public to access the town-owned parking area and the boat ramp, while allowing Collinsville Canoe and Kayak to continue to utilize the ramp for its operations.
(See illustration detailing approved land swaps at the end of this article).
The plan, however, nearly didn’t get to Town Meeting after some members of the Board of Finance objected to giving town land to a private entity and questioned the need for the town to have this public access for canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards in addition to the planned one at 50 Old River Road near the Public Works Facility a short way upriver. While the Board of Finance, earlier this year, voted to allocate $340,000 of American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funding toward access at the 50 Old River Road site, during subsequent discussion about 37 Bridge St., some of its members accused the town of not disclosing those plans.
Selectmen, however, stood by the 37 Bridge St. proposal, stating it accomplished the goals of public parking and river access, while considering the needs of the public and local businesses. Selectmen twice sent the matter to the Board of Finance, which passed it on the second vote – albeit with some continued tension between some town officials and some Board of Finance members.
Additionally, WPMC owners touted their community involvement, noting, for example, their past donation of land and upkeep funding for a portion of The Farmington River Trail that runs along Bridge Street.
While it surprised the business owners, the state first approached the town in 2019 to offer the property. In 2021, it formally came back with the $125,000 price tag.
At the June 22 Town Meeting, First Selectman Robert Bessel said the 37 Bridge Street plan accomplishes the goals of public access and parking, while giving businesses certainty and wholeness.
“If this is approved, the town gains legal ownership of the boat launch, the tenants of 39 Bridge gain an easement to use the boat launch and it gives them some certainly that this will continue,” he said. “The town increases public parking spaces and the town gains access over the entrance drive so [people] can pass and repass. 41 Bridge St. retains parking to support their tenant businesses.”
He said of the town did not purchase the property, it would go to public auction. Anyone could bid, he said, contending a new owner could potentially close off access for everyone or even propose a different type of development plan for the property.
Public comments at the meeting included several questions about the plan and the logistics of parking, use and easement language.
Town officials said the improvements would clearly designate public and private property and that all easements would run with the land but acknowledged that guidelines concerning use and exact rules would be worked out with the Board of Selectmen and its River Access Subcommittee. Town officials estimated there would be approximately 25 to 30 parking spaces but cautioned that was a very preliminary number. Officials also said the parking would not have any residency restrictions that some residents have requested. An area accessed by a stairway, which has been used at some points as a second access on the property, will likely be open to the public, officials said.
A few attendees of the meeting became visibly upset when a resident - former First Selectman Richard Barlow - moved to call the question, which would end discussion, but the majority of attendees - by a hand count vote of 56-18 - agreed to move forward with a vote on the plan. The plan then passed overwhelmingly via a voice vote. Just a handful of no votes were heard at this meeting.
One party that did plan to raise concerns were the owners of Collinsville Canoe and Kayak. Co-owner Sue Warner said the goal was to “be polite and let the townspeople speak first,” she said, noting they had not expected the call for a vote when it came.
Warner said the company has several concerns moving forward.
She said the business has been in place since 1990, has donated to numerous community organizations and efforts and has helped the town grow.
In the last few months, several people have offered to start a fundraising effort for the business, an idea she said they politely declined.
“We didn’t want to do that because we wanted to partner with the town,” she said. “We felt that would have been undermining the town and as much as we appreciated it, we didn’t want to do that.”
“We thank the town of Canton and the community of Collinsville for being part of this community for 32 years…. We feel like we’ve done a lot to bring people into this town from all over the northeast and all over the country,” said Warner, emphasizing that she felt the town and its people have been great partners.
But Warner feels it would have been better for their landlords or the Canoe and Kayak business to gain ownership of 37 Bridge St. – which has been leased by the state to WPMC for many years. She said her proposal, which she raised several times – was to provide free access to the river under that scenario. The business was prepared to bid high for the property if it came to that, she added, questioning how many would truly be interested in the parcel.
She said she also feels the town was somewhat misleading in the presentation with the talk of development in a floodplain and the lack of discussion about the launch plans for the 50 Old River Road site.
Warner said the business is concerned the area could end up having the issues of other river locations that have problems with garbage and overcrowding. She also said the ramp is narrower than people realize, and there can easily be overcrowding and other logistical issues for the business.
“The ramp is an incredibly small,” she said. “We’ve already had backlash. We know it’s going to be significantly increased in the future.”
While the town said signage and guardrail will clearly delineate public and private parking, Warner said the business will need two people to monitor either end of its lot to ensure customers park in the proper area, increasing its operating costs. She said there are also a few other logistical concerns for the business and said they have looked for alternate locations over the past two years and are not convinced the operation will continue to work in Collinsville.
She did, however, said the business had not yet found a suitable alternative and would like to stay put if it can.
“We’d like to be able to stay,” she said. “We love this town. We love being here. It’s the perfect spot for us but if we can’t conduct our business the way we need to – to be sustainable – then we’re going to have to move.”
Bessel defended the narrowness of the recent town meeting. He said numerous river issues could have been discussed but the purpose was to vote on 37 Bridge.
Bessel also said it’s clear that the both access points are needed.
“The Town Meeting was called to discuss and decide on a proposal to purchase 37 Bridge Street. The overall plan for managing river access along the Farmington River through Canton was not on the agenda,” Bessel said.
“The subcommittee and the selectmen believe that the town needs both access points to accommodate the many river users who visit the Farmington in Canton,” he added. “A visit to CCK and 50 Old River Road on a hot summer day will provide ample evidence of the public interest in both locations and also demonstrate that demand currently (and for the foreseeable future) exceeds capacity.”
What all river advocates widely agree upon is that public access is almost certainly not going to happen this year. Officials estimate at least several months before a closing could happen on 37 Bridge St.
Meanwhile, progress does continue on plans for the 50 Old River Road site.
Triton Environmental is currently working with the River Access Subcommittee to finalize draft drawings for an accessible ramp at that location. However, several steps remain as the plan will be subject to some level of review and/or permitting by town agencies, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Additionally, the project would then have to go out to bid and be constructed.
For this summer, parties agree that current arrangements will stay in place. Some members of the public currently launch near the 50 Old River Road site, but such activity has caused erosion of the riverbank.
For the ramp in Collinsville, Collinsville Canoe and Kayak allows the people to launch their own craft, currently charging $5 per boat and a requiring a waiver.
In a message to residents following the June 22 meeting, Bessel asked for patience and respect when it comes to 37 Bridge.
“The Town Meeting decision enables the Town to seek final approval from the State for a real estate closing,” he wrote. “Until this closing occurs, it remains business as usual for CCK. We ask everyone to kindly respect their private property and to follow the rules that govern parking, launching and river access. Please also note that the floating dock belongs to CCK; it should not be used by the public at any time.”
Bessel also told The Valley Press he wanted to thank residents for turning out for the town meeting and endorsing the town’s plan. While it might take longer than people hoped, public river access has been a critical issue to many for years.
“I really appreciate that people turned out,” Bessel said. “Obviously it’s a topic of great interest to the town. I appreciate the fact that they turned out, they were attentive and polite and we’re all looking forward to seeing this thing thorough to competition. It’s really important for folks to realize that it’s status quo for now. Nothing will materially change until the closing occurs.”