The Shoreline Greenway Trail: a study in patience, flexibility, and creativity

The 25-mile trail along a stretch of Connecticut’s southern coast faces challenges from acquiring easements, to coordinating between four towns, to designing through varying types of terrain.

by John Eberle, senior associate and civil engineer, Stantec

It’s no secret that bringing a new trail from concept to reality requires a commitment. But the people behind Connecticut’s Shoreline Greenway Trail are taking that dedication to a whole new level.

The 25-mile trail along a stretch of Connecticut’s southern coast has already been many years in the making, with many more ahead of it. Why? The trail faces just about every challenge possible, from acquiring numerous private property easements, to coordinating between four towns, to designing through varying types of terrain. But with some patience, flexibility, and creativity, the trail organizers and their designers are working toward what will be a spectacular recreational resource for the entire community.

Getting started

The brainchild of a group of outdoor enthusiasts across southern Connecticut (now organized as the Shoreline Greenway Trail volunteer organization, or SGT for short), the trail is intended to connect the City of New Haven to its eastern suburbs, running 25 miles through the four towns of East Haven, Branford, Guilford, and Madison. The idea was to not only create a scenic multi-use trail and commuter route along Connecticut’s shoreline, but also to connect a network of existing trails in the area, including the 200-mile, north-south New England Trail and the 2,500-mile East Coast Greenway that extends from Maine to Florida.

To assist in determining how and where to turn that stretch of land into a trail, the organization used a federal grant to hire design firm Stantec to conduct a feasibility study and map out a proposed route for the trail, including assessing connections to existing trail sections and any necessary alternatives.

Over the course of that study, the team identified scores of challenges for making it happen, any one of which might have discouraged the average volunteer group from taking it on. But with Stantec’s help, the Shoreline Greenway Trail team persisted and today continues to keep their eye on the prize to find ways to make the trail work.

Making the case

Not surprisingly, the scenic waterfront along the Long Island Sound is prime property— which means much of it is privately owned. Developing a conceptual plan for the trail meant launching an extensive public outreach program to review the proposal with corridor property owners and stakeholders and addressing potential concerns they may have about a public trail running through their land.

While extensive studies show that public trails do not equate to increased crime or other impacts like litter or vandalism (in fact, they are more likely to raise property values), for some owners, the whole idea was a nonstarter. Undeterred, trail designers identified routes to bypass those parcels as well as further alternatives that could reincorporate parcels as they become available.

One of the largest private landowners is Amtrak, which had concerns about public access and liability. Routing the trail through the Amtrak property would minimize the need to disrupt wetlands and other sensitive areas, and provide a better trail experience closer to spectacular vistas and natural resources.

But Amtrak did not want to take on any risk, offering to consider the plan only if the towns assumed any liability, both for potential trail users, as well as for potential environmental contamination issues uncovered during construction associated with the trail adjacent to rail lines. Taking on that kind of risk isn’t feasible for the towns, so once again, designers mapped out alternative routes using both public land and supportive land owners’ property to circumvent the Amtrak property.

Each of the towns also hosts a land conservation trust, which manages a portion of land that the trail would, ideally, travel through. While some of the land trusts in the corridor have embraced the project, others have expressed some apprehension about the effect a public trail would have on the land they are entrusted to protect. The main concerns centered on any non-sustainable surfaces (e.g., bituminous pavements) used for the trail, as well as potential grade changes that could impact the property, including construction equipment trucking on and through it.

The conceptual plan addresses those concerns by staying true to the needs of the land, proposing stone screenings surfacing for trails, and minimizing grading and other site changes to disrupt the natural environment as little as possible. So far, the conservation trusts have not agreed to open all of the land they manage for the trail. But, along with the Amtrak land and other potential parcels, the plan outlines how to reincorporate these sections into the master trail in the hopes that down the road the parties can negotiate some form of agreement to allow more of the public to enjoy the local environment.

A group effort

In addition to coordinating with the many private owners whose land the trail would potentially cross, trail organizers also faced the challenge of working with the four towns through which it travels. While state and congressional representatives worked to find the federal funding to move the trail forward, responsibility for implementing and maintaining the trail falls to the towns, who get their own portion of the funding to use for trail work as they see fit.

The towns, naturally, had some concerns about taking on the management of new infrastructure, but completely supported the idea of the trail and wanted to see it move forward. To help do so in a coordinated way, town representatives have partnered with the Shoreline Greenway Trail organization, which has teams of board members and volunteers associated with each town who work together through the planning, design, construction, and eventual maintenance phases of the trail.

Coordination has taken loads of communication by trail designers, SGT representatives, town officials, and the other organizations involved. In early planning phases, the design team and the SGT held two public design charrettes and informational meetings in each town, as well as a number of private stakeholder/property owner meetings to discuss the plan and alternatives. Now, each town has moved forward on their section, although in different ways.

One of East Haven’s trail segments is a one-mile stretch traveling over the Bradford Preserve, a salt marsh, which entails some complex permitting and environmental conservation planning. During the course of that early design work, archaeologists found some Native American artifacts, so design of the trail is currently delayed while the town works through proper permitting and mitigation process. Once built, the section will be a premier stretch of the trail, featuring a boardwalk to take users over the coastal marsh.

In Branford, the selected trail section was meant to connect two existing portions of built trail, extending from Young’s Pond Park adjacent to a private golf course, which added a few more complications. With the potential for more of the public crossing through the golf course and other areas, safety was understandably a major concern. To keep trail progress moving, the focus has shifted now to an alternate trail connection that avoids those conflict areas, as negotiating any property impacts or compromises will take some time.

Guilford officials have been moving forward on their first section of trail as well, just this August hosting a public meeting to comment on a proposed one-mile stretch. The section will parallel Route 1 and largely travel through the quaint downtown.

Madison hosts the Shoreline Greenway Trail’s eastern trailhead at Hammonasset Beach State Park, Connecticut’s largest and most visited state park. SGT, through its dedicated volunteer efforts, has recently constructed a spectacular portion of trail within the park, taking users along roadsides, over a boardwalk, and through forest, all with dramatic views of the beach and marshes.

Looking to capitalize on this momentum, the Town of Madison is now moving forward with a critical segment of trail that will span a tidal creek along Boston Post Road and further serve to connect Madison center with Hammonasset State Park.

Going the distance

Given the diversity of landowners and terrain, revisiting and updating the concepts outlined in the feasibility study will be critical to making the most of the trail. The study provides short- and long-term alternatives that allow progress to be made now but still accommodate the possibility of incorporating the desired land parcels if they become available as time passes. This overall vision is helping the SGT and the towns remain focused on a trail that gives people access to spectacular scenery while respecting and meeting the needs of the environment.

So far the dedication of the SGT and its volunteers, plus the momentum generated as each new section is completed, continues to keep enthusiasm high. While the overall vision of the full 25 miles from New Haven to Madison is still perhaps a generation away, the SGT continues to make progress in building a continuous trail, albeit with temporary connections in some places.

In the meantime, residents and visitors are taking advantage of what the trail has to offer, making a daily case for its popularity. What’s more, the trail plan is giving some extra help to town and state transportation officials by providing a blueprint for road improvements along the trail’s footprint.

In other words, for those sections of trail that travel along roadways, the town or state is able to coordinate any roadway upgrades to provide for expanded bike facilities, killing two public improvement birds with one proverbial stone.

No matter when the trail fully meets the vision of the community, the commitment to its future— and to finding ways to move it forward in the present— it is a model for trail enthusiasts across the country looking for trail solutions of their own.

About the Author

John Eberle, PE, based in the New Haven, Connecticut office of Stantec, is a senior associate and civil engineer who led the feasibility study and conceptual planning for the Shoreline Greenway Trail. He can be reached at (203) 495-1645.

Contact: [email protected]

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