White River Junction Volunteers Plan Trail to Downtown

  • Una Moore, 8, sits in her favorite tree that borders the riverwalk trail behind her house in White River Junction, Vt., on April 11, 2016. Moore pitches in to volunteer clearing sticks, planting trees, and gathering trash around the trail. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

  • A swing hung up by a volunteer along a recently-cleared walking trail that residents of Latham Works Lane hope to turn into a three-phase trail connecting their neighborhood to the rest of White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

  • Elisabeth Cadle, of White River Junction, Vt., stands in the middle of the first phase of a riverwalk trail she and other volunteers are planning and actively clearing in White River Junction, Vt., on April 11, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Valley News photographs — Sarah Priestap

  • Work already has begun on the first phase of a three-phase riverside trail in White River Junction, Vt., including fruit trees planted on the sides of the path. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2016 11:43:49 PM
Modified: 4/11/2016 11:58:09 PM

White River Junction — A group of residents wants to build a new kind of walking path along the bank of the Connecticut River, but town officials have expressed only tepid support for the project because of concern about long-term costs.

The trail would provide a new way for residents of Latham Works Lane, a hodgepodge of a neighborhood that includes Ratcliffe Park and a municipal water treatment plant, to walk to downtown White River Junction, according to Cat Buxton, who trail supporters have hired as project coordinator.

Currently, those who live in the low-lying area are cut off from the rest of Hartford by railroad tracks, with only a single exit from the neighborhood where Nutt Lane crosses the tracks.

“That means that anyone in the neighborhood has to walk a half-mile backwards,” in order to get downtown, Buxton said.

The trail would also be an asset for the community, she said, because it would extend up out of the neighborhood to an area between the Windsor County District Court and the riverbank, allowing residents and visitors a chance to get a good look at the confluence of the White and Connecticut rivers.

“It might be one of the most beautiful places in White River Junction, and it’s relatively inaccessible,” Buxton said.

In February, when Buxton asked the Hartford Selectboard to serve as the project’s fiscal agent for the purpose of receiving grant money, members agreed — but just barely, on a 3-2 vote and after a discussion in which members voiced their concerns.

“I’m reluctant to support this until we find out what the people in the neighborhood want,” then-member Alex DeFelice, who no longer sits on the board, said, according to a CATV video of the meeting.

“How much traffic is it going to bring?” he asked. “Is the parking going to be at Ratcliffe Park?”

Dick Grassi, who has since been appointed chairman of the Selectboard, said he was concerned that the town’s taxpayers would get saddled with insurance and other costs.

“The maintenance and the demand for resources in the present parks and facilities you have would just be drained even more,” Grassi told Parks and Recreation Director Tad Nunez. “From my seat, you have done a tremendous job. But I just don’t see us taking on any more at this time, (in terms of) responsibilities for the town.”

The vote allowed Buxton to apply for a $2,500 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation’s “Small and Inspiring Grant Program” to help pay her own wages, and to cover some of the cost of engineering work.

Buxton said she has already identified an active group of volunteers who would shoulder the burden of managing the land. About 20 people have put in hours removing hazards such as broken glass and planting native species along parts of the trail, which is sometimes used as a traditional footpath.

Buxton anticipates more volunteers coming on board now that she’s begun reaching out to other organizations in the area that might have an interest in the project.

When the Selectboard made its split decision in favor of the trail, Selectman Simon Dennis abstained from the vote, not only because he is one of the trail’s primary supporters, but also because it would cross land that he owns, lives on, and uses for the Center for Transformational Practice, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability and spiritual practice.

Dennis’ fiancee, Elisabeth Cadle, is in charge of the center’s gardening and land, and is one of many volunteers who have already put in long hours trying to make the trail a reality.

Cadle explained what would make the trail unique.

“We’re working with a design model called permaculture,” Cadle said. “That’s basically really observing what’s already happening, and working with nature rather than against it.”

When Cadle looks at the land, she thinks back to a time before harmful invasive vine species like multiflora rose and Eurasian bittersweet swept through the area, clustering on native trees so heavily that they toppled from the sheer weight, and choking out the sunlight that would have allowed new saplings to replace them.

She and other project volunteers have been working on the portion of the trail that would cross the center’s land to clear out things such as sumac and poison ivy, while planting and encouraging native, food-bearing species such as juneberry, crabapple, blackberries, raspberries, groundnuts and elderberries.

Cadle said the biggest thrill was understanding that there was, hidden in the scrub and overgrowth, a fairly extensive population of butternut trees.

“They date all the way back to the Abenaki. They were a staple food crop for those peoples and this area is known to have been an Abenaki village,” Cadle said. “It’s exciting to think that these trees have been replanting themselves for all this time by way of the squirrels.”

Buxton said developing the trail is a continuation of a neighborly spirit that blossomed in the neighborhood after Tropical Storm Irene, when many residents met each other for the first time while knee-deep in muck, trying to do initial cleanup.

Even if the project receives the full support of the town, it will still have to overcome many obstacles, including the construction of a fully accessible path along the river.

The project is broken into three phases — the first and the second are confined to the Latham Work Lane neighborhood, while the third would extend the trail to Veterans Park on Railroad Row, near the courthouse.

In order to get there, Buxton said, the group needs to do the research and engineering needed to ensure that the land in the sensitive flood-zone isn’t being changed in a way that makes it less resistant to flooding.

The biggest challenge might come during the third phase, when the plan is to extend the trail from a point near the water treatment plant, past two sets of railroad tracks to get to the downtown area.

It might be difficult to get permission from the railroad to go over the tracks, Buxton said, but going beneath the tracks at the trestles creates other problems, because the steep grade of the land would make it difficult to keep it accessible to people in wheelchairs. Significant engineering could solve that problem, she said, but it would be at great expense, and would also trigger concerns about development in a flood zone.

For now, Buxton said, those concerns are far in the future.

“Phase 3 is hard to talk about at this point,” she said. “It’s pretty conceptual.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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