What kind of recreational activities should people be able to enjoy at Darrow Pond? That was ostensibly the topic of discussion at last night's public hearing held by the Darrow Pond Open Space Committee.
Residents who attended the hearing, however, had little to say about the pros and cons of allowing kayaking and a whole lot to say about what they feared the town had in mind for the other 100 acres.
First, though, to the matter at hand. Committee members were given 21 months to come up with a plan for the use and conservation of 200 acres of the 300-acre property bought by the town of East Lyme to be used as open space.
The Committee, which will make its final presentation to the East Lyme Board of Selectmen on March 20, has come up with the following proposals for permanent easement recommendations.
- Hiking, walking, snowshoeing
- Biking and mountain biking on trails installed and managed by the town.
- Cross country skiing and running
- Hunting (for resource management only, as recommended by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection).
- Dogs walking (on leash)
- Horseback riding
- Ice skating and ice fishing
- Habitat maintenance (i.e. logging to maintain the forest)
- Educational activities
- Limited camping (i.e. boy/girl scouts by request)
- Garden plots/agriculture
- Use of motorized watercraft
- Use of motorized vehicles (except for official town vehicles)
- Building construction
- Commercial activities
- Paved Paths
- Dog Parks
- Open fires
- Recreational fields (soccer/lacrosse/bocce courts/paintball, etc.)
- Official picnic areas (with tables/grills)
- Kayaking/canoeing (The commission was nearly evenly split on that issue but the nays had it because of concerns about invasive species that might be introduced to the pond by unclean water vehicles.)
- Tobacco and alcohol consumption on the property
The Public Hearing—Areas of Concern
The public hearing was intended to give the public the opportunity to weigh-in on these recommendations. Instead, the people who spoke were mostly local residents whose deeds include an easement that prohibits public access to Darrow Pond.
They don't welcome a sudden influx of people to an area that was, until the town bought it, private property. Many said they feared that Darrow Pond might be negatively affected by increased use.
The bigger concern, however, was not what the Committee has in mind for the 200 acres of open space, but what the town has in mind for the other 100 acres that make up the 300 acre property.
Voters approved the $4.23 million bond needed to purchase the 301-acre property to preserve it as open space in September 2011. The deal to buy the land from Webster Bank for below market value was a joint venture by the town and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.
Previous owners had planned to develop the land but failed for one reason or another, although there is still evidence of where the land was once cleared to make way for what one developer had hoped would be an 18-hole golf course and large housing development.
The town's decision to buy the land was motivated, in part, by a desire to protect East Lyme's water resources with a view to developing wells or locating a water tank in the area. So far, the town has discussed the possibility of building a water tower, a ball field, a field house, or a picnic area on the site.
Darrow Pond residents, however, say they worry that the town may, at some point, decide to develop the 100-acres that comprises its share of the property, or sell it to a developer.
"When we voted for the town to buy the property, we were told the rest of the property would be for conservation. Now it seems to be changing," said John Strafaci, who lives on Darrows Ridge. "I hope they weren't lying to us."
East Lyme's attorney said the town has always been clear that, although the overall goal in purchasing the property was to increase the town's open space, the 100 acres that the town oversees would not have the same tight restrictions as the other 200 acres, because the town may need to use the land for future expansion.
There's already an ongoing legal dispute between residents and the town over the existing easement. At last night's meeting, Darrow Pond Open Space Committee Chairman Jack Hogan said that there's a good chance that there will be additional litigation before the dust settles.