BEACON FALLS — A road that becomes more or less a dirt path runs beside, and at times, just feet from Metro-North Railroad tracks.
Cold Spring Road for years had been open to residents who used it to access the Naugatuck River and the Naugatuck State Forest.
Now a locked, chain-link fence bars the road, which is situated on the west side of the river and nearby a bustling Route 8.
The state Department of Transportation, which owns the property adjacent to the tracks or the right of way, installed the gate last year when it learned how close the road is to the train tracks, said Kevin Nursick, a DOT spokesman. It discovered that proximity in 2012 when the DOT repaired several culverts on the Waterbury branch line, he said.
While for now it is closed permanently, the DOT has agreed to open Cold Spring Road for one day in May to allow organizers of a kayak race to access the river for any distressed racers.
“The responsible thing for us to do is not to allow access,” Nursick said. “It has to do with one thing and one thing only — and that is safety.”
Closing Cold Spring Road has frustrated residents, and town and state officials say it’s the only convenient way to reach the river and state forest. It blocks access to High Rock State Park where people can go to hike, bike, horseback ride and more.
Legislators and residents contend that it has been used for years without any mishap, and it should be reopened for the public.
The DOT disagrees, calling it an extreme safety hazard. The department is open to suggestion, but the road will remain closed to ensure no one is harmed by a moving locomotive, Nursick said.
In March, State Rep. Theresa Conroy (D-105) and State Sen. Joseph Crisco Jr. (D-17) met with local and state officials about reopening the road.
Conroy in a recent interview said she had been working on this issue, but also was alerted by Beacon Falls resident Robert Bradley. Bradley, who owns the Beacon Falls Pharmacy, serves as co-chairman of the Naugatuck Valley Canoe and Kayak Race and Riverfest. The event is May 4.
At the meeting, the DOT agreed to approve temporary access for race personnel during the race. It also agreed to work with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to find a workable permanent solution.
“The goal is to have the road opened permanently,” Conroy said.
She said this has an economic impact to downtown businesses, which benefit from people visiting the state park.
Crisco described the meeting as very productive.
“I’m particularly pleased that we reached an interim compromise for the short term, with a commitment to keep working toward what would be longer term or permanent access to this popular recreational destination,” Crisco said in a statement.
Nursick said flagmen from the DOT or Metro-North will be available on race day to help race personnel access the river safely.
Bradley said he appreciates the temporary access for the race because it is a safety issue for race participants. That is the most challenging part of the race route, he said.
However, he remains upset with the closure, and wants the gate permanently removed.
“That is a legal right of way,” Bradley said. “I believe it’s a town-owned road. That is my personal belief. I don’t think they have any right to close the road off to us.”
A short walk from a small parking area to the gate last week showed just how close the road is to the tracks. Cold rain pelted the ground and trees. Traffic from Route 8 buzzed not too far away.
Raymond Jurzynski, a longtime resident who also serves on the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, said Beacon Falls is losing a valuable asset with the road being closed. He has used the road for years, and even as a young boy, to access the forest for hiking and other excursions.
He recently located a deed dated back to the 1880s, and has turned over that information to the town. Jurzynski said it’s not just him who is frustrated with the road closing — it’s many residents.
First Selectman Gerard Smith said the town is actively pursuing all avenues to reopen the road.
The town is exploring the possibility that it owns the right of way, and has asked attorney Michael McVerry of Naugatuck to review the deed, he said. Beacon Falls hasn’t received a ruling from McVerry yet.
The only other access point is through a residential neighborhood in Naugatuck, which isn’t clearly marked, Smith said.
Smith contends the gate has made it unsafe because residents now go around the fence, exposing themselves closer to the tracks.