Proposal for Mountain Bike Playground in Canton clears important hurdle
Several approvals, funding still needed before project could begin
By John Fitts
CANTON – Local advocates looking to develop a mountain bike skills playground on town-owned property at 55 Lawton Road cleared an important hurdle on Wednesday, Oct. 25 as the majority of the Board of Selectmen endorsed a plan to move the process forward. Several additional steps and approvals, however, are still needed for the plan to become reality.
The local advocates, including members of BikeWalkCantonCT; Benidorm Bikes co-owner and Canton resident Jan Tanner; and Mick Ferraro, Simsbury resident and membership and outreach director for the New England Mountain Biking Association, envision a park with several distinct mountain bike features for a variety of skill levels on approximately 3 acres of the 21.3-acre parcel. The advocates of the project propose fundraising to pay for the construction and maintenance of the park. The town, however, would need to add the facility to its insurance policy to cover it similarly to other parks in town.
Many ideas have surfaced for the town-owned property since the early 1960s when it was purchased with the idea of possibly building a school at the site. In more recent years, it has been eyed for recreation and in early 2013 the Board of Selectmen approved a plan that includes a soccer 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.
The town has applied for grants over the years, but the fields have never been funded. (More recently the idea of the town partnering in an affordable housing project for the parcel has surfaced but that concept was scarcely mentioned at the recent Board of Selectmen meeting).
The mountain bike advocates are proposing developing the skills playground in the area that was designated for the practice field – as well as utilizing an additional area near the rear of the property. The concept does not affect the area where the full-sized field was proposed and leaves the area proposed for the Farmington River Trail, as well as the parking area.
The park, as conceived, 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, that would include features for various levels of riders, as well as adaptive cyclists. (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).
While the idea for such a park is not new, it has gained stream in recent months with recent posts on Facebook, media coverage and presentations to the Parks and Recreation commission, Planning and Zoning Commission, the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency and others.
And many area residents have endorsed the concept with meeting attendance and letters to officials.
“The Bike Skills Playground will be a community park, attract tourism from the regional area, and [be] funded by donations, at no cost to residents of Canton. I have confidence that it will create multiple benefits to the Town including boosting activity and health while boosting businesses in the East Gateway and Canton Village. It makes sense to allow this park on Lawton Road because of the land's proximity to the Bike Trail,” Lisa Coggins, a member of Bike Walk Canton and the Temporary Traffic and Pedestrian Safety advisory committee, wrote to the Board of Selectmen.
Numerous others have also written in and attended meetings,
14-year-old Bryce Young spoke at the meeting, and said he and many of his friends favor the proposal.
“I would like to consider myself an avid mountain biker. I’ve been riding for a number of years. I ride with the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program, and I think this would truly be a great asset to the town I have a lot of friends who would also agree with that but could not be here tonight.”
The idea does have detractors, including some nearby residents, who spoke of traffic concerns on the street as well as the natural state of the land, much of which is wetlands. While the plan does not propose any development in wetlands, at least one speaker expressed concerns about the proximity to them in the preliminary schematic for the project.
Lawton Road resident James Davidson referenced construction and traffic issues from the development at the former Applegate Farm and said a mountain bike skills park at 55 Lawton Road would add to the problems.
“So, we’re affected by that development across the street along with the traffic that’s going to be added because of it and then you’re proposing to put in a bike park down the street that’s again going to add more traffic to the neighborhood and more construction to the neighborhood,” he said. “I think the one question that I just want to put out there. … Does anybody ever think it’s OK not to – to develop – and to let nature just kind of be and let trees be?”
Canton resident Lauren Humphrey spoke in favor of the idea and talked about her family’s biking pursuits, her career that has involved efforts to get kids outside and efforts with town agencies and departments to engage teens.
“I think that having something like this would be a great way to build that community amongst the younger teens. It’s a safe and healthy activity and it can replace a lot of behavior that you’re trying to steer kids away from. The community is incredible and positive, and I think you’ll [see] kids find a sense of belonging there
Lawton Road resident Mary Coburn also expressed concerns with traffic and advocated leaving the land alone.
“We have a very narrow road,” she said. “We’re inundated with traffic. I think there could be a much better place to locate this. As Sarah Faulkner said, there are species there. As James Davidson said, is it ever OK not to develop a piece of land? Yes. Let’s just leave it wild. Find another place for this bike track but not on Lawton Road.”
Tanner also spoke during the public portion of the meeting and said the development would be respectful to land and the neighbors and said the group is willing to work with residents and the town on traffic calming ideas.
“Whatever measures we need to do we want to be able see something completed in a respectful manner for the property but for the residents that live there but bring people in the community together,” she said.
Lawton Road resident Eric Sondergeld said he lives across from the town owned property, noted he is an avid mountain biker and spoke in favor of the idea. He said the traffic issues are more about those who use the road as a cut-through and does not think the park would generate constant traffic and speeders.
“This property has been up for all kinds of different development ideas, including the town garage years ago,” he said. “I understand that traffic is a problem in the area. It’s a problem with or without this development and that’s something I think we have to address separately but I would much rather see this property used for recreational purposes rather than to be fully developed at some point. “
The evening included a presentation - intertwined with numerous questions from selectmen - about the plan itself.
Deanna Smith, an owner at Pinnacle Trail Design and Construction in Chatham, NY, has done a preliminary concept design for the park and told selectmen a little about the features of such a facility and touted benefits that riding can have – including life-long exercise habits and developing an appreciation for nature. She and others spoke to other projects in the state and elsewhere, including the Keene Bike Park in New Hampshire.
“It’s really remarkable to me how transformative a project like this can be,” Smith said.
She also said that the park would have a minimal impact to the land and would not involve clearcutting. The group said the New England Mountain Biking Association would ensure the park is maintained. They also noted that clear opening and closing dates would established, along with other details in a Memorandum of Understanding with the town and that no lights or other electric infrastructure are proposed.
For their part, most of the selectmen were supportive of the idea but did raise some concerns, including cost, liability, parking and potential wetlands issues with a portion of the project.
As per cost, Smith said that can vary widely – and gave a range of $50,000 to $300,00 or more – depending on final design and other factors. She and other emphasized that the concept design is preliminary in nature.
Selectman Bill Volovski praised the idea overall noting, “I like the idea that we would be diversifying recreation for people in Canton.” He, however, did not think the parking proposed in the current plan would be adequate should the skills park and the full-sized soccer field ever co-exist on the property.
Selectman Stephen Sedor opposed the plan and ultimately voted against it. One objection he had was what some advocates touted – that it would be a regional draw. Sedor said the project would benefit many non-Canton residents but exist in a residential Canton neighborhood.
"In my opinion developing the property that is going to be used significantly by non-Canton people and putting it in a Canton residential neighborhood is not the wise move," Sedor said.
Sedor also said in the "most respectful way" that the project would benefit the Benidorm Bike Shop but said he did not see the big benefit to other businesses some have suggested. He also said there would be hidden costs.
Other selectmen, however, while having some concerns, expressed support.
"I think there’s a real need here that's going to be met by providing a pump track and bike track," said Selectman Tim LeGeyt.
First Selectman Robert Bessel said he did not believe the town benefits by “saving” facilities for Canton residents and spoke about a greater community of area towns and said he has seen the benefits of broader efforts.
“I think that we rise together when healthy activity like this is encouraged and developed," Bessel said.
Ultimately selectmen voted to have the town seek what’s known as an 8-24 referral from the Planning and Zoning Commission. A positive referral would mean the commission essentially deems the use of the land as an appropriate one. The motion also authorizes the first selectman to begin the land-use application process as the project would need site plan modification approval and a zone change from the Planning and Zoning Commission and a permit from the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses agency.
The motion from Selectmen also notes that the group would need adequate off-road parking before the project could begin and can not interfere with the area where a full-sized soccer field could potentially be developed.
The motion, according to town records, passed as follows:
"W. Volovski moved that the Board request an 8-24 referral to the Planning and Zoning Commission and that the First Selectmen be authorized to submit land use applications for a pump tack and skills course at 55 Lawton Road consistent with the conceptual plans submitted to the Board of Selectmen and that 1) None of the activities would interfere with a future soccer field at the site 2) There be sufficient off-road parking to support the pump track and skills course and the potential soccer field.
Seconded by: T. LeGeyt
The motion passed 4-1."
Should land-use approvals be granted, selectmen would also need to give the project final approval based on the conditions and to ensure the group has adequate funding for the project in place.
The day after the meeting, Tanner said she now has a greater understanding of some of the concerns raised by selectmen and others. With the "conditional yes" in place, she said the next steps in the project will include work on a more formal design and site plan work incorporating the issues raised and reaching out to neighbors.
“I am clear that our next steps involve working with our team to say let’s get this design going,” Tanner said.
As per the neighbors, she said, “I want to make sure they’re in understanding of what our goals are in what we’re trying to do and answer their questions.”
Tanner said she also wants people to know that there is a number of people involved and advocating for the project and it’s about a common interest and love of the outdoors.
“It’s important to me that this isn’t an effort that’s Benidorm Bikes,” Tanner said. “While I just so happen to work here - we have a business that is here in Canton – that isn’t why this is happening. And I really want to make sure our community knows that. ... I really ultimately believe it is a benefit to the town, the wellness of people – the stewardship that it lends to for the youth to develop in a situation that they are exposed to the outdoors.”
“For me when I think of living in Canton, I love thinking of the land trust properties that I can go hike on; I can go on the river, whether I’m going to Collinsville Canoe and Kayak or if I’m going out on my own paddleboard; the bike path - everything that the town is strong in… everything that’s accessible for people to recreate outdoors. It’s pretty fantastic and this compliments all of those uses and experiences.”