Parks Department’s Gunntown plan approved

A 39-acre plot of land on Gunntown Road has long been a source of controversy. Opposing groups have reached a consensus, and the borough board approves.
A 39-acre plot of land on Gunntown Road has long been a source of controversy. Opposing groups have reached a consensus, and the borough board approves.

NAUGATUCK — Back in September, Parks and Recreation Department head Pat Wagner and environmental activist Len Yannielli struck a historic compromise on the long-controversial Gunntown tract, in the midst of a heated, protracted public debate.

At the time, Wagner told the board the Parks Commission and the Commission for a Cultural and Environmental Center (CCEC) at Gunntown Road, which Yannielli represents, would work on a passive park plan to bring before the board within a “month, two months tops.”

Though that timeline proved overly optimistic, Wagner and Yannielli have since found common ground on the land’s use—which had, for many years, pitted sports enthusiasts who wanted more athletic facilities there against environmentalists who wanted to protect and preserve the ecologically sensitive land.

Wagner presented the Board of Mayor and Burgesses with a preliminary plan for a passive recreation area on the 39-acre plot Tuesday evening.

“This plan allows a different type of recreation in town that we don’t have,” he said. “I’ve come to learn there’s lots of different ways for us to recreate, not just baseball and soccer.”

The board voted both to approve the plan and to enact a 10-year deed restriction on the borough-owned property, which will ensure the park remains passive for at least that length of time.

The board had opposed granting a conservation easement to the Naugatuck Land Trust, which would have ceded control permanently, in September. Members agreed the 10-year guarantee provided more flexibility.

“[The deed restriction] serves the borough for a generation,” said borough attorney Ned Fitzpatrick, who’s been working with the groups on the plan. “It leaves a period of time for the park to develop and be utilized and gives the borough a chance to revisit it in 25 years.”

The burgesses, it seemed, were just happy to have something to vote on.

“This is so long in coming,” said Burgess Mindy Fragoso. “I, for one, never thought these two groups would get together and make this happen.”

The debate about Gunntown’s use had been ongoing for almost 15 years.

The plan calls for passive developments, including a small, gravel parking lot, a storytelling area with stone seating, and a system of walking trails. One-third of a large meadow will be mowed by the Parks Department for low-impact recreational activities, while two-thirds will remain preserved for wildlife. The CCEC has long contended the land is far too environmentally, geologically and historically significant to be developed extensively.

The groups hope to team with volunteers and civic organizations, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to ensure the park is cared for properly and not abused. Wagner and Christine Yannielli said the park could serve as a hub of nature education as well as a place to relax, have a picnic, fly a kite or toss a Frisbee.

Wagner said portable toilets would be brought in only on days when organized activities are planned at the park. Otherwise, issues with melting may arise.

And like at many state parks, visitors will be required to carry out whatever trash they carry in, and no trash receptacles will be maintained on-site. This worried Burgess Hank Kuczenski, who recommended the Parks Department drop in metal drums so litter won’t become a problem.

“If you want us to add trash cans, we can add trash cans,” Wagner said. “This is a trial-and-error kind of process. This will be the first thing like this in town.”

When asked, Wagner said a cost estimate for the development was not yet available, as he wanted to get the plan approved before moving forward. He noted the initial costs should be contained within the Parks Department’s regular budget.

Public Works Director Jim Stewart said he doesn’t expect additional costs to add up in the upkeep of the park, which will entail only a relatively small amount of mowing.

Though Wagner seemed ready to get started on the park as soon as possible, the plan will need to be reapproved by the Planning and Zoning Commission, as it has been modified somewhat since it was first approved.