THOMASTON — Dirt bike trail riders showed up in force at a public information hearing about possible routes for the Thomaston section of the Naugatuck River greenway trail Thursday, February 28. Tensions were high at points as riders expressed concern about two of the routes being considered on the west side of the river that would affect recreational off-road motorcycling at the dam, on the old Route 8 and on the abandoned railroad line — changes they say would cripple the only legal off-road motorcycling area in the state.

“It’s almost like once it goes on the west side of the river, it’s going to be replacing our healthy activity with yours,” said Chris Knox, a rider from Winsted who spoke at the hearing. “So it’s like they’re telling us our healthy activity is worthless.”

The greenway project is an effort to create a 44 mile walking and biking trail along the Naugatuck River and through the 11 towns that border it.

The study presented at the hearing is looking at possible routes the trail could take from the southern border of Torrington to the southern border of Thomaston. The report, which is being compiled by the consulting firm, BSC Group, will be published in the next one to three months.

Thomaston Center School’s auditorium was packed with more than 100 riders from around the state who spoke in opposition to any route that would affect the trails at Thomaston Dam. The meeting was originally planned for the much smaller Meeting Room One in the Thomaston Town Hall, but was moved when it became clear how many trailriders planned to attend the meeting.

The most contentious part of the trail is the section from the northern border of Thomaston to the dam vista picnic area. The route being considered on the west side of the river would follow the abandoned Route 8 and an abandoned rail bed on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property. Construction costs would be relatively low along this route because part of it is already paved, BSC Group said. This section of the route would end by crossing over an access road on the Thomaston Dam.

The route being considered on the east side of the river is steeper and would be more expensive to construct. It would also pass through at least eight privately owned properties, therefore requiring the town to secure easements from those property owners, BSC Group said.

The riders, who made it clear that they support the greenway project, voiced strong opposition to building the greenway trail on the western side of river in this controversial section.

“From our perspective, it is not practicable or safe for us to share the Thomaston Dam trails area with the greenway trail,” said Tony Gasper, president of the New England Trail Riders Association, of the western trails. “To take away either the old Route 8 or, even most especially, the railbed, would really cripple the trail system and you would be left with a random grouping of trails that would not be enjoyable and it would not be safe.”

The riders have created a website, www.weridethedam.org, to organize their opposition to the greenway trail being built on the western side. 

On the website, riders have posted testimonials about how much trail riding at the dam means to them.

The Army Corps of Engineers owns the land that encompasses the dirt-bike trails. Any construction on that parcel would need to be approved by the corps.

“It’s our opinion to keep the greenway on the east side,” Steve Patchkofsky, the corps project manager at the Thomaston Dam, said at the meeting. “From a management perspective, that’s going to benefit us the most.”

Once published, the study will simply serve as a guide to towns when they decide to move forward with the greenway. There are no current plans for construction of the Thomaston section of the greenway. Any plans would have to be spearheaded by the town.

“I can assure you that in this local government, if you are a citizen of Thomaston, there will be public information hearings as to what we propose to do because ultimately we’re going to need the support of the community to do this,” said First Selectman Ed Mone.

In January, the Board of Selectmen voted to accept a Connecticut Recreation Trails grant for $140,400 to plan and engineer a section of the greenway from the transfer station to the downtown area.

In receiving the grant, the town is required to put up a 20 percent matching contribution, up to $28,800. 

This amount will likely be met through in-kind services, or time that Thomaston employees spend on the project, are taken into account.

“The town of Thomaston has thus far zero dollars invested in this. Zero,” Mr. Mone said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, may there be some cost to the town of Thomaston if we get the full trail built? More than likely, yes.”

Sections of the overall greenway are being completed in piecemeal as towns devise plans and secure funding. 

A few sections have already been completed, including almost three continuous miles of trail in Derby and Ansonia, a 1,400 foot section in Seymour, 1,800 feet in Beacon Falls, one mile in Naugatuck and half a mile in Watertown.

An economic impact study completed for the greenway between 2015 and 2016 estimated that by 2031, if the entire trail is built, the direct trail-user spending in Thomaston would total $2.6 million. The estimated cumulative health benefits — resulting from people being active outside — would be $15.9 million.

Riders say trail riding is economically beneficial for the state in the form of registration fees and property taxes on motorcycles and the town in the form of patronage to local restaurants and gas stations when the riders come to Thomaston.

“Maybe Thomaston doesn’t think they have a tourism industry, but it certainly does,” said Mr. Gasper, president of the trail riders association. 

“And to disrupt the trails to make them less enjoyable would diminish that.”

All of the proposed routes can be viewed at https://nvcogct.org/content/nrg-thomaston-torrington-routing-study.

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