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Winning Friends On The Trail
On a late Sunday afternoon in mid-August, five teenagers in shorts press their backs against the outer railing of the Farmington Valley Greenway bridge in the Collinsville section of Canton.
Two bicyclists try to warn the boy in the center against it, but he glances furtively left and right and then jumps. He lands with a resounding splash, followed by a burst of obscenities about the coldness of the water.
The bicyclists shake their heads and pedal away as the four remaining boys debate whether they'll jump, too.
It's the sort of scene that critics cite when they claim Rails to Trails projects like the Greenway invite trouble.
Over the years, groups of homeowners along various segments of the 22-mile route have raised fears of vandalism, trespassing, loitering, litter and noise after learning that the abandoned rail bed near their homes will be converted to a pedestrian and bicycle path.
Such opposition is not confined to Connecticut. After learning about a new Rails to Trails project, neighbors of retired rail lines in some states have strung fences across the route, sued to claim ownership of the land, and reportedly even set fire to wooden ties on the old bridges.
But overwhelmingly, such fears ease soon after a trail is actually built.
``Developers in various parts of the country are building spurs to reach established rail trails,'' said Craig Della Penna, New England field representative for the national Rails to Trails Conservancy.
The organization refers to a half-dozen studies in California, Iowa, Minnesota and Washington that conclude rail trails don't create crime; if anything, they diminish it.
In Connecticut, independent sources back this up. Police in Farmington and Canton, along with state troopers in Burlington and East Granby, all say the Farmington Valley Greenway and its Canton spur have not brought trouble.
``The rail trail has had a real positive impact in Collinsville. We've had absolutely no problems, none,'' said Sgt. Ken Ripley, a 30-year veteran of the Canton Police Department.
Teens very rarely use the trail's Collinsville bridge for jumping, he said. That problem was more frequent when it was a rusting, ignored hulk.
``When they put in the trail along the river, some of the older fishermen said it would be full of kids hanging out. Some people in town were afraid,'' recalled John Marona, owner of the Quiet Sports shop in Collinsville. ``But it never happened. People use it all the time, so kids aren't going to get in trouble there -- they're too afraid of getting caught.''
The Farmington Valley Trails Council is used to hearing opposition as the trail reaches new sections of its ultimate, 22-mile, Suffield-to-Farmington route, and as work progresses on its 8-mile Farmington-to-Canton spur.
``At first, people along the trail put up fences in their backyards to screen it. Then, after a while, you see them cutting doorways into the fence so they can go out on the trail themselves. Then sometimes they take the whole fence down,'' said Stephen Noble, treasurer of the council.
Elizabeth Dolphin, assistant planning director in Farmington, said, ``When they hear it's coming, sometimes people screech. But when it opens, they love it. A lot of the trespassing problems disappear after the trail goes in. The ATVs that race up and down the old rail bed disappear.''
Metal barricades keep motorized vehicles off the path. Police, however, can unlock and lower them to get access in an emergency.
Thieves occasionally break into cars parked near the trail and steal what they can -- cash, wallets, watches, CD players -- in the kind of thing police call a crime of opportunity. But crime on the Greenway itself is extremely rare.
A streaker was arrested there earlier this year. But the rumor of the attempted abduction of a young woman jogger last year near Red Oak Hill Road in Farmington turned out to be just that -- a rumor. Even so, it had to be quelled by a public meeting with police.
``It turned out to be this guy talked to a girl on the trail a few times as she was jogging by,'' said Farmington Police Chief Michael Whalen.
He advised Greenway users against leaving valuables in their cars when they park.
``If you're going to have things in the car, you should put them in the trunk,'' he said. Or better yet, carry a small backpack or fanny pack and take valuables along, he suggested.
``I can't think of any problems on the rail to trail,'' Whalen said. ``For the amount of people using it, it's been pretty quiet.''
On the other hand, the benefits of having a bikeway/walkway nearby can be measured in higher property values, extra tourism revenue and a more attractive area for people looking for homes or thinking of relocating and starting businesses.
A 2000 survey by the National Association of Home Builders showed that prospective home buyers 55 and over ranked walking and jogging trails as the top amenity they desired among 10 items, ahead of parks, public transportation, open spaces, lakes and outdoor swimming pools.
In 2002, the home builders association and the National Association of Realtors surveyed 2,000 recent home buyers and found that 36 percent designated walking, jogging or biking trails as either an ``important'' or ``very important'' community amenity, outranking sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, shops, public transportation, business centers and ball fields. The only amenity more popular was highway access, at 44 percent.
In Farmington, just south of the newly renovated bridge over the Farmington River, several homeowners are overjoyed that their children can ride on the Greenway that skirts their backyards. They've even built stone steps and dirt paths lined with logs so they can negotiate the steep slope from their yards to the trail.
Tamara Labbadia said she and her husband, John, had wanted to sell their New Britain Avenue house for years. They have two boys, and the road is just too busy for them to ride their bikes.
Now the boys routinely ride on the trail, and their mother either walks or rides on it, too.
``Now that we've got this, I don't want to sell,'' she said. ``Everybody who comes and visits wants to go down there and see it.''
Longtime Rails to Trails advocates say they're not surprised by such reactions. Dwight Weed, president of the Farmington Valley Trails Council, organizes bike rides on the Greenway and invites selected people to help spread the message that finishing it will be good not only for people interested in recreation but also for the state's economy.
``I think once this thing is completed, once this is done from New Haven to Northampton, it will become second only to Mystic in the number of people it attracts to Connecticut,'' he said.
Progress on the Greenway has often meant compromise.
When an Avon neighborhood balked years ago, the route was diverted from the original right of way across Route 10 at Route 44, for instance.
A detour sends it westward through a hilly office complex, into an old tunnel beneath Route 44, across the Avon Police Department's parking lot and alongside two streets before reconnecting with the rail bed a half mile north. Designers are still looking to Hartford Life and other companies in the office complex to provide an easement to move the trail onto their huge lawns and off heavily trafficked Security Drive.
Old grade crossings along the route present another challenge, but most are handled with traffic lights or a series of warning signs to both motorists and trail users. The worst spot is near Bidwell's along busy Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury. There is no light, and trail users at rush hour can be stuck many minutes before they can dart through short gaps in the traffic.
Hopmeadow is a state road, and the Greenway council is trying to persuade the Department of Transportation to install a crosswalk light.
When obstacles can't be avoided, the council tries to work with them. Signs in Avon and Simsbury warn trail users that they're passing through active hunting grounds, so gunshots are not unexpected. At another spot, walkers are warned that hunting dogs will be training in the fields along the path.
Even so, compromises don't always end happily. The 1955 floods washed away the rail bed in Burlington near Arch Street, and trail designers ended up routing the Greenway onto Arch Street. Neighbors immediately complained that pedestrians would block traffic and create noise.
Nine years later, Gail Lanfair said the trouble isn't exactly as she'd feared.
``Is it as bad as we thought? No -- it's worse,'' she said. ``We get small children running on our yards unsupervised, people picking flowers from our gardens, 5:30 a.m. joggers talking at the top of their lungs, people not curbing their dogs, pedestrians walking five or six abreast and blocking our cars,'' Lanfair said. ``Some people are very considerate, but a lot aren't.''
In East Granby, Leslie Vosburgh of Hemlock Road already has concerns about a proposed alternate route for the Greenway along the southern boundary of Imperial Nurseries in Granby that was announced days ago. Her backyard will be close to the trail, she said.
She's worried that people who walk their dogs on the trail will rile her two dogs, making them bark more than her neighbors will be able to stand.
``They're going to be agitated all the time,'' she said.
At a minimum, Vosburgh would want a stockade fence between her yard and the buffer zone for the trail.
``If I had a dog that didn't bark all the time, I wouldn't be talking'' about it, she said. ``I'd say just go for it.''