A bill that came before Connecticut’s Transportation Committee in January has reignited concern among residents and property owners along Guilford’s scenic shoreline who, for more than a decade, have fought to keep a bike path from being constructed through their town.
Residents along Route 146 in Guilford, a narrow road which runs along scenic marshland populated with homes built in the 17th century, say the Shoreline Greenway Trail, Inc, (SGT) a nonprofit group formed in 2001 with the goal of constructing a biking and walking path to stretch from Hammonasset State Park to Lighthouse Point, has used questionable tactics in years past to attempt pushing through construction of a bike path called the Shoreline Greenway Trail.
Backed by federal and state money, sections of the Shoreline Greenway Trail have been built in the neighboring towns of Madison and Branford but construction efforts hit a blockade in Guilford that remains to this day.
In 2017, following a town public hearing attended by hundreds of residents and the presentation of petition signatures both for and against the project, the Guilford Board of Selectmen ultimately voted down construction of the greenway trail in Guilford. The project would have cost more than $800,000, money that would have been supplied by state and federal grants.
“We’ve had a battle going on in Guilford,” said Robert Vavasour, a Guilford resident whose home along Route 146 is more than 300 years old, the interior of which remains largely original to its construction. “In 2016, when this came to a head, the whole town was convulsed by this. We had signs from one end of Guilford to the other saying no map, no plan, no approval. We had the biggest town meeting in history that we know of with television crews in attendance and print media there and they were decisively defeated. They [SGT] were really called on the carpet for their lying, their misrepresentations, their lack of respect for their neighbors and private property rights.”
Louis Mackall, an architect, says at first, he thought the greenway was a great idea and donated money to SGT before changing his mind. He says he gave the issue more thought and looked at how it could affect other residents.
“They seem to be very excited about doing this, and again, the idea sounds great. For some years I supported it and sent them money,” Mackall said, adding that Guilford doesn’t have an abandoned rail line like those used in “rails to trails” projects throughout the country that convert abandoned railway lines into bike paths. “If you don’t have that then what you’re saying is we want to clear woods and we want to take the front yard of somebody or we want to widen or use the full amount of an existing road right of way in order to make another road.”
Supporters of the Shoreline Greenway Trail were “obviously disappointed” by the 2017 vote by the Guilford Board of Selectmen, according to SGT’s 2017 annual report.
“We believe SGT and our partners and supporters, including the town engineer and Connecticut DOT, made a good case for the trail and its benefits to all of Guilford,” the annual report said. “Unfortunately, the political climate wasn’t right, and we look forward to working with the community and helping the town improve pedestrian and bike infrastructure in Guilford.”
While those opposed to the greenway trail thought the idea was dead, a bill that appeared before the Transportation Committee in January 2023, has caused some Guilford residents to sit up and take notice. An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Vision Zero Council, a committee bill, included language that would give the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT) the power of eminent domain for the construction of a bicycle lane or multi-use trail.
The bill, which covered transportation safety issues at a time when Connecticut’s traffic fatalities were on the rise received generally wide support, with most opposition coming from motorcycle riders opposed to a helmet law. Bicycling organizations were highly supportive of granting the DOT commissioner the power to take land for bicycle trails or bicycle lanes, particularly as a safety measure.
R. Bruce Donald, southern New England manager for the East Coast Greenway Alliance, an organization which seeks to create a continuous biking and walking path from Maine to Florida, wrote in testimony that Connecticut’s general statutes “must be augmented to include language that allows CTDOT the right to acquire land for any bicycle lane or multi-use trail.”
“Tens of millions of dollars of important connections are now stalled in multiple municipalities,” Donald wrote, including $16.4 million in federal grants to complete the greenway trails through Plainville and Farmington in Connecticut. “With the completion of those remaining projects the entirety of that 56.6-mile trail system would be complete, bisecting Connecticut and providing through transportation, community growth through economic development, and connections into Massachusetts to their extensive trail system which is being built out now.”
The lone voice in testimony opposed to the eminent domain language came from Yankee Institute President Carol Platt Liebau, who said in public testimony it was “an abuse of eminent domain and a misuse of government authority,” and referenced the disastrous Kelo v. New London eminent domain case that garnered a book and film entitled Little Pink House.
“The bill demonstrates no public need to take private property,” Liebau wrote in testimony. “These bike paths are for the recreational use of a single group: cyclists. And a theoretical, de minimis reduction in carbon emissions can’t justify the real seizure of real people’s real property.”
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Another cause for unease among Guilford residents opposed to the greenway trail was another federal earmark in the latest infrastructure bill, awarding $7 million to New Haven for the Shoreline Greenway Trail. To them, the specter of millions in federal dollars might prove too good to pass up for state and local officials, particularly if DOT were granted the power to seize private land.
“Then we saw the legislation language and we said this is our absolute nightmare, I mean they have been revived with another federal infusion, now have the whole shoreline in their crosshairs again,” Vavasour said. “The fact is the DOT given this power would be a tremendous threat to property owners across the state, whether it’s a greenway trail of some other multiuse trail or an expansion of an existing bike lane. Lots of us are all at risk with this property right being taken away as they expand eminent domain to go beyond the traditional highway and maintenance facility limitation for DOT. It’s for recreational use and it seems pretty clearly that it’s driven by an increasingly powerful lobby.”
It appears, however, that the eminent domain language has been stripped from the bill, according to a March 13 email exchange between Vavasour and Chair of the Transportation Committee, Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, who wrote that “due to the testimony and feedback the committee has received, we decided to remove the eminent domain section from the bill.”
But the question remains: why has something as simple as a bike path caused such controversy in this town of 24,000 residents, and is there any middle ground, moving forward, to complete the 25-mile stretch between Hammonasset and Light House Point?
Former Chairwoman for SGT Judith Miller, who was head of the group leading up to the 2017 vote by the Guilford Board of Selectmen and remains on the Branford team of SGT, says she understands residents’ concern about the specter of eminent domain but was completely unaware of the January 2023 Transportation Committee bill.
Indeed, no one from SGT testified on the bill, despite Transportation Committee chair Cohen representing three towns the Shoreline Greenway Trail would pass through. The organization explicitly states on their website that they do not support eminent domain: “We are community-minded people who understand concerns about setbacks, privacy, property rights and property values. We have not supported and do not support the use of eminent domain for building any trail.”
“We would not be involved in eminent domain, in fact we would stand and oppose it,” Miller said, adding that SGT is an issue advocacy group, and any eminent domain seizure would be done by the town or the state. “We don’t have any rights. We don’t own anything. There’s no way we could do anything.”
Miller also says that when it comes to state and federal money, that money doesn’t go to them either, it goes to the municipality for the purposes of building the Shoreline Greenway Trail; their organization just bears the same name. In the case of New Haven’s Shoreline Greenway Trail earmark, SGT leadership says they weren’t even aware of it and those funds are for New Haven, not Guilford.
It’s an important distinction to make: SGT does not own or construct any of the Shoreline Greenway Trail. Instead, they advocate for construction of the trail and work with state and town officials to get it done. Basically, they’re a group of bicycle and outdoor enthusiasts who raise money and advocate for bike paths, bike lanes and multi-use trails throughout the four towns with the ultimate goal of connecting them all.
In 2005 when the state received federal money for the Shoreline Greenway Trail, the state divided the funds between the four municipalities: East Haven, Branford, Guilford and Madison.
Miller says the design for the Shoreline Greenway Trail had little to do with the coastline section of route 146 at that time. Instead, it was supposed to create a bikeable, walkable sidewalk from the intersection of Route 1 and Route 146 to the Madison town line.
Opposition to the shoreline trail came as a surprise, Miller recalls, noting that their organization receives a large chunk of its support from people in Guilford.
She says the town had been working on the project and it had been progressing “nicely, quietly,” before it was determined the project had to be put up for a vote and then the “storm” started, ultimately resulting in the Board of Selectmen rejecting the town engineer’s plan. The money was sent to East Haven instead.
“It became such a political hot potato that they just dropped the whole thing, gave the money back to the state. SGT had applied for and received a grant to help supplement that federal money so that also went back into the state funds,” Miller said.
“I call it a bit of a tragedy,” Miller said. “In the long run it was a loss for Guilford, I always felt, because they lost a sidewalk that would have been a safe way for people in that neighborhood to get into the center of town.” SGT has since concentrated more of its efforts in neighboring towns like Branford, Madison and East Haven.
Miller believes town residents opposed to the shoreline greenway were concerned their town and properties would be “taken over,” particularly when it came to residents along the shoreline like Route 146 who feared that by completing one section of the greenway trail, Guilford or Connecticut state officials, with the urging of SGT, would continue to progress along that route and pressure private property owners to grant access to their land. The rising opposition eventually torpedoed the whole thing.
And Miller is exactly right. Some residents were and remain concerned that any new section of the greenway trail in their town will just create more pressure to complete the whole project, which is meant to run across Guilford. And while the SGT organization opposes eminent domain, Vavasour says granting such power to CT DOT would simply be the political “spear tip” by which the group could finally get what it wants.
“Again, an irony is that our organization has some of its best support in the town of Guilford so there are a lot of people who would have preferred having the trail but, as you know, it only takes a small group to get things fired up and you can get people all alarmed,” Miller said.
One of the concerns is the size of the trail and what would have to be done to route it through woodland areas. Mackall likens the trail to “80 percent of a road” that would be cut through forest.
“Now, the reason they would like to do this is its more pastoral and we could ride our bikes through the woods etc, but the net result is they are essentially making 80 percent of a road through the woods and when you look at it carefully you realize that’s what’s going on,” Mackall said.
Certainly, some off-road sections of the greenway are roughly 10 to 12 feet wide packed with sand and gravel for easy walking or biking and do take a fair amount of engineering to cut through forested and often rocky terrain. Other sections, particularly near the railroad tracks, are more of a thin, graveled path.
However, since the beginning, the primary criticism is that there is no real map or plan of where the greenway trail would go. The lack of information was part of the protest against the greenway trail in 2016.
“They never gave us [a map] either because it actually violates their core strategy,” Vavasour said. “You do it piecemeal; a little piece here, a little piece there and each piece adds up and creates more and more pressure on the hold outs.”
There is no official map for the shoreline greenway trail through Guilford, other than the generalized big picture idea featured on trail signs. But SGT contends that is because where the trail goes depends largely on where they can go based on who allows the use of their private property for the trail and what local officials are willing or able to construct. The plan is constantly up in the air, and it gets done piecemeal with an overall goal.
There was, however, a study conducted in 2010 by Stantec, a community design firm, at the behest of the South Central Regional Council of Governments (SCRCOG). The Stantec study showed potential routes for the Shoreline Greenway Trail running along a short portion of Route 146 and the train tracks before veering up and around a body of water called Lost Lake, situated between the forested areas of the Guilford Land Conservation Trust and property owned by the Leete family, a large land-owning family that has been in Guilford since the 1600s and still use the property for timber.
Indeed, Route 146 is named Leete Island Road and many of the houses built along it were built by the Leetes hundreds of years ago.
According to the Stantec study, the path would then merge with Route 146 again until it came to some marshland where a boardwalk would be constructed to pass over the marsh and into property owned by Yale University.
Currently, much of the greenway’s route involves traveling on streets making the possibility of dangerous or deadly encounters between bicyclists, pedestrians and motor vehicles more likely, particularly on narrow Route 146 through Guilford. In a perfect world, Miller says, SGT would absolutely prefer the bike paths to be off-road for both safety reasons and because it’s more scenic.
To that end, representatives of SGT were soliciting property owners leading up to the 2017 vote for permission to use their land to bring the Shoreline Greenway Trail off-road. That’s where things got contentious, breeding an overall lack of trust.
Kent Bloomer, a retired Yale professor of architecture, and his wife Nona, former historical records librarian for Guilford, own a modest home overlooking the marshland between their property and property owned by Yale near a severe bend in Route 146 which passes under the railroad tracks.
The Bloomers say they were approached by representatives of “a committee that was putting this whole thing together from the standpoint of bicycling” about using part of their land for the greenway trail.
The Bloomers say their primary concern is preservation of the marsh. “I remember talking to them quite a bit and at that time they just wanted to go right through the marsh right on the old trolley tracks that are now sort of half-submerged in water and what they would end up doing is tremendous amount of ecological damage,” Kent Bloomer said. “Obviously, there are our own concerns about private ownership but, beyond that, what we have always done is try to improve, watch out for the marshes and the small water rivulets that creates with tide.”
However, the Bloomers both say that they were given misrepresentations during this meeting. In particular, the Bloomers say they were told during this meeting that Yale had granted permission for the Shoreline Greenway Trail to go through their property on the other side of the marsh and that the Bloomers were essentially blocking the way.
“We found out later that they did not have permission, which was quite disturbing that we were being given misinformation. I’m a retired professor from Yale. Yale owned it so we just called them and got right through to the top people on this, and they said they don’t have any permission from us,” Kent said. “But he was sitting there telling me at our own dining room table that they did. As if ‘we already have this thing worked out, why are you blocking us?’ and they didn’t have this thing worked out. So, it was disturbing to be spoken to that way.”
According to correspondence provided by the Bloomers, they met with Lawrence Dowler, previous chair of SGT’s Guilford committee, in 2006 and again in 2010.
According to a 2016 letter from David Skelly, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, “In the spring of 2016, the Board of Curators of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History considered and rejected a proposal from the Shoreline Greenway Trail organization to have the trail cross the Richards Property, which is owned by Yale University and administered by the Peabody.”
“The land was donated to Yale with the express intent that it be used for teaching and research,” the letter states. “Its current use falls within that mission.”
The Bloomers aren’t the only family who feel they were fed misrepresentations in the push to get the Shoreline Greenway Trail running off-road through Guilford. Lawrence Leete, head of one of the family’s corporations, says his when his family was initially approached by SGT in 2010, wanting to construct part of the trail through their property, they declined, but that representatives of the organization continued to insinuate the Leetes were on board with the project.
Leete says his family was originally contacted about going through a section of their property where people own cottages near the waterfront, but the family declined, not wanting to intrude upon their tenants. Then came the proposed trail that would go around Lost Lake and cut through their timber area, which he describes as “fairly rugged,” and would likely require quite a bit of work to make a multi-use trail.
“The Board of Selectmen also had to be reminded of the letter written by my father back in 2011 that we weren’t interested because [SGT] was basically saying that we were all on board, which was not the case,” Leete said. “They’ve burned this bridge with, basically I’ll call it lies, because they were wandering around town hall telling everybody that we were on board. We weren’t on board. We never had been.”
Similarly, a 2010 letter from Sarah S. Williams, president of the Guilford Land Conservation Trust at the time, said that while they are generally supportive of greenways and had been working cooperatively with SGT and Stantec to find suitable routes, they had not received enough factual details about the proposals. “The necessary engineering is highly problematic,” Williams wrote, and asked that “all GLCT land and trails removed from the maps.”
“Finally, please note that the SGT must make it clear when it communicates to the public, media or others that GLCT is not affiliated with SGT and that GLCT conversations with Stantec or SGT do not constitute cooperation, support, collaboration, partnership, or ‘being on board,’ with SGT (as has been stated by SGT publicly in the past),” Williams wrote. “Any representation otherwise may preclude future dialogue.”
Miller states that Yale never gave permission to use their land, but says she wasn’t part of the Guilford team of SGT, which at the time consisted of Pam Bisbee-Simonds and Kristen d’Souza, according to SGT’s 2016 annual report. There were also “at large” members of SGT’s board of directors.
“I don’t think we would have ever said that. We were seeking permission from Yale at one point to try to connect, again, off road, near the railroad track right of way, but that was some time ago and Yale wasn’t interested. I don’t believe we were going on private property. I think we were asking permission to go on railway property and then across,” Miller said. “Our organization might go to people and ask if they’re interested in thinking of the idea of giving a right of way to the SGT, but all the property owner has to do is say no.”
According to another 2010 map produced by Stantec, several property owners said no; five property owners besides the Leetes denied use of their land along Route 146 leading up to the marsh where the Bloomer’s home is located.
Miller also says, according to her recollection, that part of the confusion with the Leete family’s property stems from their large family’s co-ownership of the property. “One of the co-owners had been in favor and the others were not, so I think that’s how it happened,” Miller said.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about Guilford and one thing is basically that I think these are people who would have preferred not to even be approached,” Miller said. “I think it made people nervous that they were even asked, and I can understand in the case of the Leetes. They’ve owned the property for years, centuries, and somebody pointed out to me that the railroad had used eminent domain to take some of their land for the railroad, to cross land previously owned by the Leete family, and I can imagine they get nervous, but they do have total right of ownership.”
“They have a vision,” Leete said. “Their intentions, I guess, are good, but their attempt to make it happen is so misguided because the area is just not well designed for this kind of activity. You’ve got narrow roads, you’ve got salt marsh on both sides, you’ve got areas that are flooding and that have limited access under railroad passes.”
“It’s not a transportation issue, it’s obviously a recreation issue,” Leete said. “But why do my family and relatives have to suffer for their recreational opportunities?”
Walking along the Shoreline Greenway Trail in East Haven, parts of which overlook scenic marshland just like Branford and Guilford, current Chairman of the SGT Dan Buckley stops occasionally to pick up a discarded plastic cup and lost ear-warmers to throw them in the trash.
Buckley has been with the organization for a year and a half and was not part of the discussions in Guilford leading up to the 2017 vote. “We want to work with anybody and everybody to make transportation as safe as possible to get from point A to point B,” Buckley said. “And as beautiful as possible.”
At the moment, roughly 20 percent of the greenway trail is through woodland with the rest confined to streets, which sometimes prove dangerous and deadly for pedestrians and bicyclists alike. Another 6.5 miles of greenway trail are currently being examined for feasibility, but those sections, too, are limited to roadways and, if approved, are years in the future.
But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic town, city, and even federal government officials have placed greater emphasis on getting people outside, improving pedestrian safety and creating walkable, or at least bikeable, cities and towns, particularly in light of increased vehicle accidents involving pedestrians.
As for Guilford, the Shoreline Greenway Trail is left with Route 146 as the primary route for bicyclists, and Miller hopes that some safety improvements can be made to that scenic, yet narrow road.
“One answer is to simply stay on 146 and make it safer. That could only be done with things like signage and, I don’t know, speed bumps?” Miller said. “There’s no way to widen it. That’s not going to happen. And that will be the state’s decision, and I imagine they consult with the towns; I don’t even know.”
Despite Route 146 being a designated bike route, the narrowness of the road makes it dangerous.
In November of 2022 a bicyclist on Route 146 was struck by a vehicle and severely injured. That bicyclist happened to be John Bysiewicz, an avid bicyclist who organizes road races and is brother of Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz. He lost part of his leg in the accident.
Guilford team members of SGT and Miller wrote into the local paper referencing Bysiewicz and another bicyclist struck by a car, saying Route 146 was “long overdue” for a safety upgrade. “These accounts might not have happened if Route 146, marked as a bicycle route by the State of Connecticut, was made safer for bicycles and pedestrians. This road is long overdue for such measures to be taken.”
Years prior, in 2018, the Town of Guilford created the Safe Streets Task Force to ensure that town streets and roads are safe for all users including bicyclists and pedestrians. The task force released its Safe Streets final report in March of 2022. Part of its recommendations included bike lanes on roads, sharrows to alert motorists of potential bicyclists, and advisory shoulders, which give extra space on the side of the road.
SGT has been working with the Safe Streets Task Force, according to their 2022 annual report, and SGT continues advocating for bike lanes, off-road biking where possible and sidewalks.
SGT reaffirmed multiple times that they are opposed to the use of eminent domain and, regardless, the legislation which would have enabled DOT to take land for multi-use trails is apparently off the table.
But there remains the desire by SGT and many residents in Guilford to create this 25-mile greenway from “point A to point B,” something that should be workable even if it doesn’t perfectly meet what SGT may have wanted in the past. Naturally, all advocates want something, but sometimes the desired outcome must be altered to accommodate private property rights, narrow streets, politics and, in some cases, difficult terrain.
Nevertheless, SGT hopes to be able to continue working with towns to create more trails and greenways where they can, working with partners and trying to work around roadblocks. Getting from point A to point B is sometimes far from simple and, in the case of Guilford, point B may be trust. Surely, that was lost during the contentious lead up to the 2017 vote. History of those interactions remains fresh for some residents and property owners.
“People have never forgiven or forgotten what [SGT] did in that regard, and we don’t think they’ve changed their stripes,” Vavasour said.
During a March 6, 2023, Guilford Board of Selectmen meeting, Nona Bloomer spoke publicly, reminding the board about public opposition to the greenway trail.
“They have no map, no plan and deserve no approval for any standalone segment,” Bloomer said, according to meeting minutes. “Do not reintroduce a situation that pitted townspeople against each other and the board should insist on a complete plan from the Branford line to the Madison line. It does not need to go along the fragile shoreline.”
In response, Guilford First Selectman Matthew Hoey III, said he has been in discussions with SGT and “expressed some of the same sentiments were expressed to them given the nature of the representations that had been made during that troublesome period with [SGT], as well as some assumptions they made about being able to utilize the private property, not the least of which was the Guilford Land Conservation Trust.”
“There was acknowledgement on their part that their methodologies and representations were accurately described as being less than honest and above-board,” Hoey said. “They’ve come back to the table now with a different attitude, a different perspective.”