Monday, January 24, 2022

Introducing French's Hill

Painting new trail blazes during a January thaw

A substantial new trail is in progress this winter at French's Hill, also known as French's Farm. It's located in the White Hills opposite East Village Park and above Indian Well State Park, although it does not connect directly with the latter. An out-and-back hike over the new loop will cover 1.5 miles, and there's an option for taking a short spur trail to a dramatic hilltop meadow. 

Progress Map (click to enlarge)

Trailhead parking is located at the end of a short drive with an entrance that is opposite the mailbox for #46 East Village Road. The entrance is easy to miss, but there is a good-sized parking lot at the end of this drive.  Under the drive and parking area is a solid base of crushed stone created by the local developer from whom a small section of the French's Hill Open Space was acquired. It all became overgrown and you would never know there is crushed stone underneath it all, but it's there. 

"Before": The crushed-stone driveway in early December
(there is crushed stone under the grass)

"After": The drive was cleared back enough
so trail volunteers and staff could park

The drive entrance back in 2006, believe it or not.

Mark Vollaro cutting back the overgrown parking area

The 111-acre open space property is dominated by a cleared hilltop that rises 100 feet above East Village Road. This is no typical Connecticut rocky hilltop, but is a classic drumlin that formed when a pile of sediments were molded and compacted underneath a glacier.  It's the highest point around. You can look east across the Housatonic River Valley, or turn west and watch the sun set over distant hills.

The flat top of French's Hill is the highest point in all directions

The flat top of the drumlin is tilled for corn and the eastern slopes grow hay.  During the offseason, people are free to stroll about the open hilltop, but the area should be avoided during the growing season since the land is licensed to a local farmer. 

Looking east across the Housatonic Valley

From the top of French's Hill the land slopes gradually eastward towards the Housatonic River, dropping 550 feet in less than a mile. The hillside was compacted first by the glaciers and later by livestock, and water tends to stay near the surface rather than sink in. This is challenging terrain for a hiking trail. Parts of an old ATV track that was constructed illegally in 2012 were incorporated into the new trail system for the time being to keep things simple. 

Mark & Luis clear a massive blowdown where the footing is less bad
along a stone wall

The routing was chosen in December before the ground froze at time when ground conditions are typically at their worst.  There are still stretches of trail that will be muddy for much of the year. It was unavoidable. Over time, these areas may be "hardened" with stepping stones or helped with bog bridges. In the meantime, hikers should come prepared with proper footwear, especially during Mud Season. 

The lower meadow

The terrain was often found to be a bit drier near the old stone walls. Sometimes one side was much higher and drier than the other side, which can happen over time when the uphill side is tilled for crops.

Deceased Long-Tailed Weasel

There's a lot of wildlife at French's Hill. Deer, turkey, and coyote are all over the place. A frozen weasel was found under the powerlines, probably dropped by a hawk based on the puncture wound on its neck.  The spot has been nicknamed "Weasel Way." Staff with the Connecticut DEEP collected the weasel to use in a study. There are two type of weasels in Connecticut: short-tailed and long-tailed. They are hard to tell apart, but all the short-tailed weasels turn white in the winter and only some of the long-tailed weasels do, so this would appear to be the latter. These tiny but fierce predators eat mice and rabbits and ducks and anything else they can kill. 

"Weasel Way" - a complex junction of farm roads 
under the powerlines

"Weasel Way" is the most potentially confusing part of the new trail. Farm roads and meadows and the powerlines all come together in a complex offset intersection, and hikers will need to pay attention. For the winter, the trail route is marked with survey tape that says "TRAIL" on it in Sharpie. Later one we'll get some 4x4 posts and arrows. 

Stay tuned! We expect to do more clearing of the trail and parking area, paint some blazes, and maybe improve some of the wetter spots and the weather and time allows. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Trombetta Woods Open Space

State Forest lands block the extension of 
Stockmal Trail to Trombetta Woods

So close, and yet so far. 

Hikers reaching the end of Stockmal Trail in the White Hills are just 150 feet away from the City's elusive "Trombetta Woods" open space. Blocking passage to this landlocked property is a narrow strip of Centennial Watershed State Forest through which Means Brook runs.  The state purchased recreation rights over the watershed property in 2002, so we had high hopes of acquiring permission to extend Stockmal Trail across the brook. Moreover, the Connecticut DEEP had required Shelton to build Stockmal Trail with the goal of linking to Trombetta Woods after awarding the City a $202,500 grant to protect the Stockmal property. The State would seem to have a vested interest in linking to the Trombetta property, since they helped fund the connection.  But Shelton's request to cross the state forest was denied. 

The Trombetta Woods Open Space

Trombetta Woods covers 32 acres, but seems larger because it abuts the state forest to the north and east, and Jones Farm to the south.  It was purchased for $342,000 in 1988 from Louis and Nancy Trombetta and was part of the former Swendson Farm in Monroe. About half the property was quarried for gravel in the 1960's, and parts of the property are scattered with old piles and trenches, now covered with trees. Legal access to the property is from the Monroe side with an assigned address of 68 Swendsen Drive, opposite Captains Hill Road, but the old drive leading down to the open space between houses has become overgrown and there is no parking area.  Back in the 1980s, the Trombetta property was expected to be developed as a Planned Residential Development (PRD) with twenty new houses draining into the drinking water supply. Shelton city crews would have needed to drive through Monroe to access the new homes with school buses and emergency response crews, and this is likely a major factor for its purchase by the City. 

Trombetta Woods

A blazed 1/2 mile loop trail was created on the Trombetta property in 2021 after the Natural Resource Manager discovered the highly invasive Mile-a-Minute (MAM) Vine growing in areas that were previously disturbed from gravel quarrying. The trail allows access across the property to the infected site for future management efforts, but cannot be easily reached by the general public. 

Means Brook at low flow

Means Brook, which runs through the state forest, sends drinking water supplies to Means Brook Reservoir.  DEEP describes the brook as an "engineered canal" that was excavated over 100 years ago. During low flow, the river is only a few inches deep, but heavy rains cause the channelized river to rise rapidly. The floods might wash away any pedestrian bridge that is built improperly, which is why the Trails Committee had not previously attempted to extend Stockmal Trail across the river to Trombetta Woods. A pedestrian bridge would be a technical challenge. But in 2021, it was noted that the river was typically low enough that the crossing could be as simple as a plank thrown across the river, with the plank tied to a tree to keep it from washing downriver after heavy rain. A more significant pedestrian bridge could be added later if necessary.

Growing the Greenway:  After the Trombetta property was purchased in 1988, members of Shelton's Conservation Commission and Land Trust set out to connect the open space to other conservation lands in the area, including the nearby Stockmal property, which was privately-owned but used as a Boy Scout camp. The Land Trust had recently acquired the next parcel over, called Willis Woods (1986), and soon gained the core of Nicholdale Farm across the street (1991).  

Plans were put into writing with Shelton's 1993 Open Space Plan, which outlined a strategy for connecting conservation lands into corridors called "greenways."  Several private properties, including the Stockmal property, were tagged for preservation within the Means Brook Greenway. This greenway was considered especially important because it protected drinking water that flows into Means Brook Reservoir.  

The Stockmal Property:  In 1999, Shelton applied for a Connecticut DEEP grant to purchase a conservation easement and hiking trail rights over the Stockmal property. Mayor Lauretti's cover letter justified the proposal: "It will provide a key linkage in the City's hiking trails allowing access for the first time to the Trombetta Woods City Open Space Parcel." 

Stockmal Trail was required by the CT DEEP

The Connecticut DEEP awarded $202,500 towards the project, with the City of Shelton paying an additional $247,500 for total purchase price of $450,000. The grant contract required the City to maintain the following public access: 

" a marked trail proceeding generally from the George Willis Woods Open Space owned by the Shelton Land Conservation Trust to the east and across the northerly half of the subject parcel in a westerly direction towards the Trombetta Woods Open Space parcel owned by the City of Shelton to the west of the subject parcel." 

This trail is called Stockmal Trail, blazed white. The trail currently ends at the west edge of the Stockmal property near Means Brook, at the edge of Centennial Watershed State Forest. 

Stockmal Trail ends at the border of the state forest,
150 feet from Trombetta Woods

About Centennial Watershed State Forest: In 2002, the State of Connecticut purchased rights to 15,300 acres of water company lands in 24 towns (940 acres in Shelton), collectively known as "Centennial Watershed State Forest."  The price was $90 million, with the Nature Conservancy contribution $10 million and state taxpayers funding the rest. The sale included recreation rights to 14,496 acres (areas near water company facilities were excluded from recreation access). Some of the properties were purchased by the state outright, while Class 1 Watershed properties are still owned by the water company (now Aquarion), but are protected from development. 

The Saugatuck Trail fords a small stream that flows into the
Saugatuck Reservoir in Centennial State Forest

In Fairfield County, hiking opportunities were subsequently created in the State Forest around the Saugatuck Reservoir in Redding/Weston via the Saugatuck-Aspetuck Trail. In Shelton, there are currently opportunities for fishing and hunting within the state forest by special Aquarion permit, but not hiking except for a short section of trail at Nicholdale Farm that preexisted the creation of the state forest. Shoreline fishing is allowed at Far Mill Reservoir. Archery deer hunting is allowed on over 400 acres, including 218 acres surrounding Far Mill Reservoir and 189 acres next to Means Brook Reservoir. Although a form of recreation, deer hunting is also an important forest management technique used to improve water quality (overabundant deer strip vegetation, leading to erosion).  

Managing Recreation in the State Forest:  A "Natural Resource Management Agreement" between the three landowners specified how the state forest was to be managed. Under the agreement, a new "Conservation Land Committee" (CLC) was charged with management decisions. The Committee consists of one member each from Aquarion, the Connecticut DEEP, and the Nature Conservancy. The goals of the management plan include the protection of the drinking water supply, healthy forests, and recreational opportunities. 

Section 5.4 states that "public use and recreation opportunities will be encouraged" and that "linkage to existing trails will be a priority." 

Saugatuck Reservoir, as seen from the Saugatuck Trail
in Centennial State Forest, Weston

Section 5.4.1 states that the "highest intensity public uses will be directed toward storage reservoir watersheds.  Distribution reservoir watersheds will have more limited public use in an effort to protect the water quality of these critical water supplies." Means Brook and Far Mill Reservoirs are storage reservoirs (as is Saugatuck Reservoir); Trap Falls is a distribution reservoir. The proposed trail is located 1.6 mile north of a storage reservoir. 

Section 4.2(a) of the agreement requires the Committee to create Watershed Management Plans that shall "ensure that long-range resource management plans are developed and implemented on a watershed basis, incorporating prescriptions for resource stewardship that are science-based and specific to local conditions. The plans should also include measures to promote and accommodate recreational access to the extent such recreational access, use and resource management does not significantly adversely affect (i) BHC's ability to fulfill BHC's Public Service Obligation, or (ii) the natural resource protection goals of the Conservators." (Note: BHC is now the Aquarion Water Company).  

The Saugatuck Trail in Centennial State Forest crosses many streams that
 flow directly into the Saugatuck Reservoir

This Watershed Management Plan requirement is described under Section 5.10. and is to include "public use and recreation, including without limitation, hiking and pedestrian access, equestrian access, bicycle access, boating and fishing." Prior to adopting each Watershed Management Plan, the Committee is required to hold informational public meetings to "exchange ideas regarding each such plan and the related policies and procedures with interested members of the public." Notice of the meeting is to be sent to the Chief Elected Officials of each town. After the Watershed Management Plan is adopted, annual meetings with the Chief Elected Officials are to be held. 

There is an existing "Forest Management Plan" for the Means Brook Watershed Block (2013 to 2023), which appears to be the plan that is required in the Agreement.  This Forest Management Plan focuses on logging, invasive species, and hunting. The plan says little about public access and recreation (the Watershed Management Plan is required to include watershed-specific "measures to promote and accommodate recreational access.")  The plan does say, "There is a long history of positive connections between good forest management practices and hiking in Connecticut. Much of the 500-mile Blue Trail System is located on abandoned or active logging roads, some of which are found on other watershed lands throughout the state."  The plan also very briefly describes the Paugussett Trail in Monroe and suggests that new trails might link the Paugussett Trail to Monroe town open space. There does not appear to be any reference to public hiking access in Shelton. 

Saugatuck Trail brook crossing in Centennial Watershed S.F.  
This brook flows into the drinking water reservoir.

Section 4.5 of the agreement states that the CT DEEP "will provide personnel time, equipment, supplies, and materials in the implementation of joint resource management or maintenance activities, as appropriate, and specifically with respect to any recreational enhancements."  This means that new trails may add to DEEP's inventory of management obligations, although trails themselves are created and maintained by volunteers. This requirement may act as a disincentive to approve new trails. However, enforcement is also required where there not hiking trails. This is especially true in the case of Stockmal Trail, since the existing Stockmal Trail ends near the banks of Means Brook (as required by DEEP), and there is evidence that the general public has already been continuing through Aquarion property towards the river.  Moreover, active enforcement is already required for 400 acres open to hunting and one reservoir open to fishing. In comparison, the proposed hiking trail would impact 150 feet of state forest. 

The Approval Procedure: According to the Management Agreement, Aquarion "shall make" an initial determination as to whether such proposed public uses significantly adversely affects its ability to provide quality drinking water. If Aquarion determines the use is acceptable, then the three members of the Conservation Land Use Committee have 180 days to determine whether the use will be permitted.  Additional approval must then be granted by the Department of Public Health. According to Section 5.4.3, new trails must be unanimously approved by the Conservators. 

We do not know if Aquarion made an initial determination on whether Stockmal Trail would significantly adversely affect the drinking water supply. A site walk with all three stakeholders was organized by Aquarion personnel. The only feedback received at that time was from DEEP staff, saying they did not want anyone near the river. The Conservation Land Committee subsequently denied Shelton's request to extend Stockmal Trail across Means Brook. The reasoning was as follows: 

"The Conservation Land Committee (CLC) is required to obtain a Connecticut Department of Public Health permit to construct and maintain trails within Centennial Watershed State Forest (CWSF). These permits require impact assessments, monitoring, patrol, maintenance and enforcement plans.  CT DEEP EnCon Police and Aquarion Water Company Police are then required to patrol and enforce the regulations stipulated in the permit.  The CLC has worked to create trail access and extensions where feasible with rules to protect sensitive watershed lands, such as: no pets, no wheeled vehicles (bikes), no horseback riding, and no off trail access. The CLC believes this trail crossing through CWSF would be difficult to control, monitor, and patrol for the extent necessary to enforce these regulations and visitor rules, especially if folks need to cross through the water."

This was a surprise given the number of stream crossings that occur along the Saugatuck Trail in Weston in the State Forest and on Class 1 watershed lands. Those streams are closer to Saugatuck Reservoir than Shelton's proposed crossing is to Means Brook Reservoir. Both reservoirs are storage reservoirs, not distribution reservoirs. If fording the brook was an issue, then conditions could have been placed requiring a bridge, but that was not the case. 

Bridge over Nicholdale Brook near Means Brook
Centennial Watershed State Forest/Nicholdale Farm

There is a closer example of a hiking trail crossing Centennial Watershed State Forest: Nichols Trail at Nicholdale Farm. This loop trail briefly passes through the State Forest and crosses Nicholdale Brook just 400 feet from Means Brook. It's closer to the drinking water reservoir than the proposed Stockmal Trail crossing is, and the brook typically has a good flow. The trail was built in the 1990s before the State purchased recreation rights over water company lands to create the state forest. The Iroquois Gas Company sold the property to the water company in 1996 with a deed restriction allowing passive recreation. We are not aware of any problems created by this trail. As a pre-existing trail, however, the Agreement requirement that DEEP supply resources to police the trail would not seem to apply. 

The denial to Shelton's proposal to cross Centennial Watershed State Forest, as worded, makes it sound like the issue is more one of DEEP not wanting to incur additional commitments with limited resources. If so, the state's purchase of recreation rights may have paradoxically reduced Shelton's ability to extend Stockmal Trail. The Stockmal property purchase was planned in the 1990s, at a time when the water company (BHC at the time) was open to hiking trails such as the Paugussett Trail in Monroe and the new trails at Nicholedale Farm in Shelton. Conservation Commission members were frequently in communication with BHC's president and working with the company over various property issues throughout the 1990s, and there appeared to be no concern that Shelton might not be granted approval to cross Means Brook. It was only later, when the state purchased development and recreation rights over the property in 2002, that DEEP gained veto power over local efforts to cross water company land. 

Regardless, DEEP required Shelton to build Stockmal Trail for the stated purpose of accessing Trombetta Woods, and contributed over $200,000 towards that goal. We'd like to find a way to finish this job.