Mountain bike advocates envision 'playground' on town-owned property at 55 Lawton Road in Canton
By John Fitts
CANTON – Local mountain bike advocates are advocating for a multi-faceted skills playground on town-owned property at 55 Lawton Road.
“I see the incredible opportunity to distinguish our community and lead through the diverse outdoor experiences for people of all ages,” Jan Tanner, co-owner of Benidorm Bikes, told members of the Planning and Zoning Commission on Sept. 20.
Tanner is part of a group looking to develop several distinct biking features over an area of approximately 3 acres of the 21.3-acre parcel.
Those would include a beginner pump track and skills zone, an intermediate/advanced pumptrack and skills zone and an approximate half-mile flow track and skills trail. (A pumptrack is named for the action of generating one’s body up and down – i.e. pumping – over features such as berms and other varied terrain that can include moved earth, rock gardens, wooden bridges and other infrastructure).
“We’re looking to work with the community – both the local mountain bike community and the community at large - to develop a best in class – we’re calling it a mountain bike playground,” said Deanna Smith, an owner at Pinnacle Trail Design and Construction in Chatham, NY. Among others projects, the firm designed and built a trail network at Norbrook Farm Brewery in Colebrook.
Tanner and others see numerous benefits to the playground concept. She said it offers activities for kids that aren’t into team sports or the arts, provides fun for all ages, provides an activity for families to do together, opens the door to town-sponsored summer activities
and school clubs, benefits local business and helps kids develop of love of the outdoors and conservation. She also touted scientific studies showing cognitive and physical benefits for youth.
Advocates said the project would also tie into efforts to maintain and even improve the town’s bronze level certification from the League of American Bicyclists, particularly since the Farmington River Trail is designated to run along a portion of the front of the property.
There is also a demand for the project, Tanner said.
“There is a broad audience of supporters and now is our time to utilize this recreational space, preserving the town owned green property and providing another way that all ages can enjoy the outdoors,” she said.
Smith also noted the track not only will have something for riders of all ages but also feature accessible features for adaptive bicycles made for those with physical limitations.
“We hope that it will serve cyclists from of all ages and abilities down to 3 year olds on strider bikes all the way to the most seasoned expert riders …. So it’s something that will be fun and valuable to a really large community and hopefully encourage even folks who don’t consider themselves mountain bikers yet to pick up this sport and give it a try,” Smith said.
Mick Ferraro, Simsbury resident and membership and outreach director for the New England Mountain Biking Association, said there is a demand for these playgrounds.
“We have seen these skills parks, pumptracks, bike playgrounds come to fruition and build communities all across New England. ... It’s something that Connecticut in pining for and these local communities are really in need of,” he said.
When pressed by commissioners, Smith estimated the cost of the features at between $100,000 and $300,000 but the group is not asking for town funding.
“We’re in a time crunch where we have offered this up to be something where we’re not asking for town dollars we are going to fundraising the heck out of this,” Tanner said during the presentation. “We have tremendous opportunities and deadlines that are knocking at our door to receive tens of thousands of dollars in grants to help with this. This again comes as a result of what is going on nationally to be outdoors, to help families preserve what is beautiful around you and just engage in outdoor activities together.”
Smith also said the development of the features has minimal impact and does not involve clearing large areas.
In an interview after the meeting, Tanner said many of the available grants are available through end of year and she would love to see ground broken by next spring. When pressed. She acknowledged the timeline is ambitious.
“Can my time frame be that next spring we are breaking ground on it? That’s going to be my goal and so much of it is how the town is going to help us move it along. Spring will be here in no time,” Tanner said.
The group presented the concept to the Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this year and Parks and Recreation Taryn Schrager, Director of Parks & Recreation, said members were supportive.
"The proposal was brought to the Park & Recreation Commission in June, and the commission was supportive of the proposed design plan for the property," she noted. "The design plan showed a way to share the property between multiple interest groups, which would keep the property as a recreational space."
Still, the bike advocates have several steps – and a few potential hurdles – before gaining approval. To move forward it would need town involvement, approval and cooperation.
The group plans to present the concept to the Board of Selectmen the evening of Oct. 25.
The Planning and Zoning Commission would need to grant a zone change from R-3 to what’s known as Municipal, Community, and Public Facilities District as well as issue what’s known as an 8-24 advisory referral about the use of the land. The commission would also need to approve the site plan.
A permit would also most certainly be required from the Canton Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency.
There is also some question about how the land should be used.
Original purchased in 1960s for use as a school, recreation has been a long-time goal for the property. In 2013, the Board of Selectmen approved a plan that include a playing field, parking for approximately 90 vehicles, an area for smaller practice field(s) and a 1,200 foot linear portion of the Farmington River Trail. That circa 2013 plan left most of the rear of the property along due to extensive wetlands.
While the town has applied for grants over the years and discussed other funding possibilities, nothing has come to fruition so far.
In preliminary planning, the bike advocates have left the parking area and field – often referred to as a soccer field – intact, utilizing the area previous slated for the practice fields as well as a portion to the rear of the property.
However, at least one other idea for the property has surfaced – that of affordable housing. Such a project generally involves units that are deed restricted for people making 60 or 80 percent of the state or area median income. In June of this year, the Planning and Zoning Commission discussed the idea – as a concept – whether to recommend to the Board of Selectmen that the town look at the possibility for the Lawton Road property. To date, however, the commission has not done that on a formal basis.
The commission has been frustrated that most recent multi-family developments have not included an affordability component and while the commission – on Sept. 20 in fact – passed a 15 percent affordability requirement to most multi-unit developments, members have also acknowledged that land acquisition costs is one reason developers are hesitant to take a hit on rental income and/or navigate the more complex public and private incentives for affordable housing.
Additionally, some commission members have noted that public utility infrastructure, particularly with the planned development at the former Applegate Farm – is now already very close to the property at 55 Lawton and as town-owned property, some see it as a way to take high land acquisition cost out of the equation.
On the 20th, commission members held a somewhat lengthy discussion, posing some questions to the bike advocates about whether they considered other sites and debated points among themselves.
Commission member Lansford Perry initially spoke strongly about the desperate need for affordable units, the high cost of land and close proximity of the sewer shed and other infrastructure, but also deferred to an idea from chairman Jonathan Thiesse.
Thiesse contended that if the town some day in the future decided to be involved with such an affordable project on the property that it could potentially involve funding to “relocate” the bike infrastructure. Thiesse expressed reservation at “the idea of holding up something like this (the bike plan) that would benefit the town the way it probably could for pie in sky potential uses of this property.”
Commissioner Elizabeth Vinick cautioned that grant funding for the bike infrastructure could come with restrictions, but other commissioners noted that the commission could also set conditions that allowed for the possibility that a portion of the property could some day be used for a different purpose.
Vinick also she loved the idea of the bike infrastructure, but spoke extensively about the need for affordable housing and the potential resistance to the commission’s other action that evening in terms of that issue.
She also spoke to the uniqueness of the Lawton Road property, noting that the town had the potential to contribute the land – or a portion of it – to an affordable housing project.
“We could go to the Board of Selectmen at their next meeting or whatever and say we have a mandate to build affordable housing -this is a great site for that let’s look at this. … I just feel like we’re already taking steps backward if we don’t at least make a case for it being affordable housing or partially affordable housing,” Vinick said near the end of the discussion.
At one point during the discussion, Tanner noted some 234 units in housing projects recently approved or coming online and touted the idea of the town getting creative with property owners to build vertically and reuse vacant properties to fulfill affordable housing needs while promoting public, cycling and bike infrastructure.
“I am absolutely aware [of affordable housing issues] and hope for our town to have vision to use resources that don’t take away green space,” she said.
“I think we all could find better places to do anything and no one here is going to say that riding a bike is more important than having a place to live but this is perfect opportunity for this space, there’s no doubt about,” Ferraro added. “We can go all over the place and find all these different places to build parks and I appreciate you even brining them up but we’re here now and we’re talking about this property and we’re really energetic about doing this and I think it’s worth consideration there’s no doubt about it.”
Some commissioners also noted that recreation has long been a potential use on the site and the idea of the bike infrastructure was much more developed than some other potential uses.
"This is before us now," said Sandra Trionfini. "It’s exciting and it’s tangible, so I have no problem with being excited about it."
Thiesse did an informal polling of commissioners and most agreed they did not see anything on the preliminary plans that would pose an issue on an eventual site plan.
And, according to Thiesse, the decision on the ultimate use of the property is not one for the commission to decide.
At one point during the discussion, he said, “Maybe the answer, to be honest, with the respect to the zone change is to have them go to the Board of Selectmen and let the actual property owner decide what they want done on the property and not us."
See below for selected slides from the presentation and aerial maps of the property.