Two years of cross-municipality organization and higher support for greater bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure in Chester are set for work as outlined in the “Lower Connecticut River Valley Heritage Trail Action Plan 2023,” released by the town’s Sustainability CT Team last month.
The plan, which spells out the organizational components that would go into the creation of an 18-mile trail stretching from the Chester Historical Society to the Amasa Day House in Moodus, is the culmination of a collaboration between Chester, Haddam, East Haddam, and state and regional bodies including the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG).
Heritage Trail originated from a community desire for more infrastructure to support walkability along a one-mile corridor that would “safely connect agritourism and historic sites along Town Street” in East Haddam, reads the plan. After considering similar data related to biking and town assets in Chester, the project was extended, and the proposed path now reaches the heart of the town in the downtown village area.
The trail’s snaking into Cheser could mean multiple benefits in the areas of sustainability and environmentalism, economic development, and health and wellness for Chester residents, according to Cindy Lignar of the Sustainability CT Team.
“The Loop Trail will be a unique and excellent option for outdoor recreation, allowing all to enjoy the magnificent beauty of our area, including our many shared natural resources, as well as the historic and art destinations, shops, and restaurants along the route,” she said. “The trail will provide improved cyclists and pedestrian safety and provide for equitable access for all ages and diverse backgrounds.”
These opportunities could lead to “an overall healthier community…because of expanded safe exercise opportunities, [a] healthier environment with increased walking and cycling versus driving…increased economic development by attracting visitors to our area,” said Lignar.
Results from a Sustainability CT Team survey active from May to June 2022 saw numbers that supported that extension. Around 83% of respondents said they would “possibly” to “definitely,” “walk/jog/run more frequently if sidewalks or pathways in Chester were interconnected,” with more than 62%, or 249 respondents, answering the latter choice. The same number of respondents answered yes to the question, “Do you think the addition of crosswalks that provide marked areas for pedestrians to cross streets should be a high priority for the town?”
With promising results, the team moved ahead collaborating with the two towns, members of the National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, and RiverCOG, the latter of whom met with Chester on June 2, 2022, and the trail’s planning team to walk the route southward to the downtown area.
A year later, the Heritage Trail plan was released, and now the Sustainability CT Team has identified its next steps and the short- and long-term goals to realize this multi-town project.
One of the steps has already been taken with the creation of an advisory committee to oversee the implementation of the necessary infrastructure to support the 18-mile route. The committee consists of multiple town stakeholders in the Chester portion of the project. Along with the Sustainability CT Team, it includes members of the selectmen and finance boards, commissions of planning and zoning and inland wetlands, and public works, among others. These stakeholders and their representatives would formulate short-term and long-term plans to create a well-equipped and functional bike and pedestrian path, from identifying proper locations for waste disposal and bathrooms, signage, and water stations.
According to the plan, the identified short-term goals are to be completed within two years, with long-term goals taking place beyond that timeframe.
As an example of a short-term goal, Lignar said, “The Economic Development Commission [EDC] is working on water stations, and we have been in contact with the public works foreman…the Board of Selectman and others in town seeking guidance as to the best locations and all of the works that would go into installing water stations and maintaining them as well,” said Lignar.
Lignar said the results of an approved road safety audit by the Department of Transportation’s Community Connectivity Program found that “their recommendations also overlap with roads that are on the Heritage Trail loop,” which include state Routes 148 and 154. To improve connectivity, the audit lists several transportation and infrastructure shifts that can be made to link adjacent local roads to those two highways.
Along with meetings with the advisory committee, a second step has already been taken to bring plans to a higher level of planning.
“Our next steps are working with RiverCOG, the senior transportation planner [Robert Haramut]. We have already initiated conversations with him,” said Lignar.
In the short term, the Sustainability CT Team will continue to apply for state grants to financially support the creation of the trail and focus on communications. The plan lists methods of communication as creating a trail logo and marketing package and organizing a website. Lignar said the team is also interested in hosting public information sessions on the topic in collaboration with the EDC.
The action plan can be found on the town’s website at www.chesterct.org.