Town Meeting scheduled for Canton's plan to purchase riverfront property
Updated: 1 day ago
Town Meeting set for June 22
By John Fitts
CANTON – In a second take on the matter, the Board of Finance on Monday voted 4-2 in favor of utilizing up to $160,000 from town reserves to fund the purchase of 37 Bridge St. along the Farmington River in Collinsville. The plan also includes some land swaps and cross easements with adjacent property owners, a point of controversy in town in recent weeks.
Town Meeting approval is still required for the purchase and advocates say it would provide the town with both parking and river access. The latter has been an ongoing issue in town and the parcel is one of two areas at which the town is hoping to provide a place to launch canoes, kayaks, and Stand-up Paddle boards.
Detractors of the plan say it gives too much to private property owners at taxpayer expense.
The 2.25-acre parcel at 37 Bridge St., currently owned by the state Department of Transportation, includes land adjacent to both 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, and half of the paved boat launch area.
The plan, as approved by the Board of Selectmen, includes the purchase of the 37 Bridge St. property for $125,000, as well as signage ($800) and guardrails (up to $32,000), as well as land exchanges and cross easements with Waterfront Preservation and Management Corp.
As laid out in town documents the plan approved by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance involves the following:
• Owner of 39 Bridge Street would grant to the Town ownership of the boat ramp in sufficient width for public access to the entire ramp.
• Town will grant the to the owner of 39 Bridge Street an easement over the entire boat ramp area for use of the boat ramp, including for commercial purposes.
• In exchange for conveyance of the boat ramp, the Town will covey to the owners of 41 Bridge Street the portion of parking immediately adjacent to the 41 Bridge Street commercial properties (paved area).
• The owners of 41 Bridge Street will convey back to the Town an easement over the parking area for use by the public to gain access to the 37 Bridge Street property.
A small spur that juts into 39 Bridge St. would be conveyed to that property.
The first vote and controversy
On April 18, the finance board first considered the plan, forwarded from the Board of Selectmen, and deadlocked with a 3-3 vote, meaning it did not move forward. The Board of Finance has long known of the goal of purchasing the property and members said they still favored the idea, but several expressed various levels of concern about the idea of giving up ownership of the parking and entrance area near 41 Bridge St. While some felt the property was too important to the town to potentially lose out on the opportunity, others said giving up the parking near 41 Bridge St. was too much of a “windfall” for private property owners on the dime of taxpayers.
“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,” Board of Finance member Tom Blatchley said at that meeting. “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.”
Blatchley spoke again at a subsequent Board of Selectmen meeting on April 27, stating the town should keep ownership and consider leasing the parking area back to 41 Bridge St., similar to what the state has done for numerous years. He also said the town was had not fully disclosed the plans to use $340,000 of American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funding for public canoe, kayak and SUP access at the Public Works garage site (50 Old River Road), a statement that received pushback from Town Officials, who said that the Board of Finance had voted for the ARPA spending plan, which included funding for the access.
The details of the plan for 37 Bridge St. also received some resistance from members of the Planning and Zoning Commission on April 20. While that commission did give a needed referral for the 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.”
Collinsville Canoe and Kayak owners have also expressed concerns about the idea of the boat launch becoming completely public.
In mid-April – before the first Board of Finance vote on the matter – Sue Warner, co-owner at Collinsville Canoe and Kayak, acknowledged some ongoing business operation concerns should the ramp become public.
“We are very apprehensive and concerned about how the waterfront becoming completely public property will affect our business,” she said. “We are hoping the town and all the residents will be great partners and we are hoping for the best. We are going to have to change our operation significantly and are not sure if it's going to work or not and we’ll do the best we can.”
“It’s pretty frustrating after being part of this town for 32 years and expecting our 50-year lease to continue for the waterfront for an additional 18 years in the future,” Warner added. “Since that is going to be changed, we’re still hoping we can be a big part of this town.”
At that April 27, Board of Selectmen meeting, its members stood by the plan, stating it accomplished the goals of river access, additional public parking and not harming area businesses. Board of Selectmen members said the plan resulted from months of negotiation and addressed several concerns initial raised by private property owners. Its members voted to send the plan back to the Board of Finance for reconsideration.
“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,” Selectman Bill Volovski said that evening. “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.”
In a letter to the Board of Finance in advance of the May 2 meeting, Douglas Cahill, Secretary for Waterfront Preservation Management Corporation, seemed to take some exception to the idea that the company would just be receiving a free gift with the parking area near 41 Bridge St. In the letter, he reviewed the history of the lease, including the understanding by the company that it would be for 50 years with the option to purchase the land in 2038.
Cahill also asserted that WPMC have been “excellent stewards,” of the property, noting numerous improvements over the years. He also said that in 1998, WPMC gave up a third of an acre of land and $7,500 for improvements of the Farmington River Trail without any taxpayer funds or reduction in taxes. He also said the company has allowed the town residents to park on both private and public property during large events and allowed the public to use the launch. (Editor’s Note: In recent past years, users not renting from Collinsville Canoe and Kayak have been asked to pay a small fee and sign a waiver).
“In a continuation of our attempts at remaining good neighbors, we have offered the Town a right of way across and thru our private land so that residents can enjoy direct access to the river and boat launch,” Cahill wrote. “In exchange, WPMC requested that we be deeded the parking lot adjacent to our main building at 41 Bridge Street. During the course of the current discussions regarding the Town’s purchase of 37 Bridge Street, the Board of Selectman recognized the value of this exchange. Although the upper parking area would become part of 41 Bridge Street, the Town would be granted a permanent right of way for the public to access the remaining portion of 37 Bridge Street. Upkeep, property taxes, and general maintenance would continue to fall on the owners of 41 Bridge Street.”
The May 2 meeting
On May 2, the Board of Finance rescinded its earlier vote and approved the plan both by a 4-2 tally. The Board of Selectmen later scheduled a June 22 Town Meeting, where qualified electors and voters will decide whether to approve the plan. That date has not been officially set.
Board of Finance member Sarah Faulkner is one who voted in favor of the plan at both Board of Finance meetings.
At the May 2 meeting, she said the town once had the chance to get the parcel free of charge and said the lease agreement, and the fact that the ramp is half owned by the state and half privately, has caused much confusion in town about why state property is not fully accessible – free of charge – for the public.
“It has been for confusing for town residents for decades now, who feel that we ought to be able to use the boat ramp,” she said.
While Faulkner has stated her opinion that the plan should have also included an easement over the private property for a potential river walk, she spoke in favor of the deal overall.
She also said parking at the Old River Road site is limited and felt there would be demand for both access points.
“That’s needed for Collinsville; the park is needed for Collinsville; the businesses need to be able to control their own property in Collinsville and I think this is a good solution,” she said.
The two voting against the plan continued to express concerns about using town funds to purchase property and then giving a portion away in what they said was an uneven exchange. They also questioned the idea of the town providing two access points.
“I did speak at the last Board of Selectmen meeting and gave an alternative proposal,” Blatchley said the evening of May 2. “It seemed to fall on deaf ears and it’s disconcerting that we’re here, back again.”
Blatchley also feels the parking area near 41 Bridge St. will only rise in value.
“That’s vital for Collinsville,” he said. “When the ax factory takes off it’s going to become even more vital and that’s where most of the parking is for this proposal is in that paved lot that’s in front of 41 currently. In terms of the access, I still don’t subscribe to the theory about needing two access point. The town has received 340,000 in the ARPA funding to build an access point and I hope the residents understand that – that we’re spending money to buy land to turn around and flip it.”
Finance board member Andrew Lavery also brought up the ARPA funding that includes the proposed access at 50 Old River Road (public works site).
“At that last meeting … when we first started discussing this, why wasn’t the river access at the town garage discussed? I was under the impression that this boat ramp this is it – if we don’t get this boat ramp, we’re not going to have river access it was never brought into the discussion that we’re going to have river access.”
Canton Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner reiterated his belief that the Board of Finance would have been familiar with the funding.
“The ARPA funding was reviewed by the board, approved by this board. In that ARPA funding it had $340,000 for river access at 50 Old rover Road. My guess, and maybe I was wrong in this, I assumed since you voted in favor of it, you already knew about it,” said Skinner, adding that the ARPA items were also discussed at several public meetings. “I’ll take the blame. I could have brought it up. I could have made it part of my presentation. I thought it was part of your prior knowledge.”
Lavery also said he still felt the town would be giving up too much of the parking area under the plan at taxpayer’s expense.
“I really can’t get over the fact we’re giving up an entire parking lot for half a boat ramp. To me that’s not a fair swap. We’re giving them a dollar and we’re getting 20 cents back. To me that’s what it feels like we will have river access at one point – at some point. I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer money to give the parking.”
Andrew Ziemba was the one Board of Finance member who voted no at the April 18 meeting but yes, the evening of May 2.
He said he felt he was not informed enough the first time around to vote yes but has since talked to people in town, learned more and further reflected on the plan. He also said residents should be able to decide.
“I trust the Board of Selectmen put in significant effort to try and get the best deal possible for the town,” he said. “I don’t want to say that I would know better than the town as a whole. So, if it could go to a town vote, I would be happy to entrust them in selecting the best option for what the town as a whole would like to see for this project.”
Board of Finance Chairman Ken Humphrey supported the plan during the first BOF and spoke in favor of it again and also referenced the WPMC letter, saying that he supports the idea even more in light of what it referenced.
“I don’t see a problem with donating this land back to them because they still gave the town more land than we’re giving them,” said Humphrey, who earlier in the evening said the parking area at question in front of 41 Bridge is about a quarter of an acre.
Humphrey said he understood Lavery and Blatchley’s viewpoints but also felt that gaining half of the boat launch had more community value than the parking area for which the town would give up ownership.
“The value of the boat ramp I believe on a square footage basis – not in dollar signs – but in its use – has more value than that land standing in front of 41 and that's why I’m going to be voting yes on it tonight,” he said.
Joining Humphrey in voting for the plan were Ziemba, Faulkner, and Katie Kenney.
Blatchley and Lavery voted no.
The purchase would now need Town Meeting approval. That meeting is now set for 7 p.m. on June 22 in the community center multi-purpose room at 40 Dyer Ave.
Even if the 37 Bridge Street plan moves forward at Town Meeting, free public river access might be at least several months away. The plan, in addition to Town Meeting approval, would require some final scaled drawings, paperwork and state review. Officials estimate it would be several months’ time to schedule a closing.
Meanwhile, work continues toward the access at 50 Old River Road.
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.