Someday, when cyclists, hikers and walkers take to the Norwalk River Valley trail, they just might want to thank an off-road enthusiast or two.
So with warmer weather coming, The Hub takes a look at the long-anticipated project where non-motorized vehicles will be the only mode of transportation allowed. The 27 mile-long trail will stretch from Calf Pasture Beach, Norwalk along the Norwalk River valley to Danbury.
In many ways, the NRVT project owes its existence to exasperated dirt bikers and snowmobilers.
Because these hobbyists buy gasoline, they pay the gasoline tax. Many felt cheated because the tax to supports federal and state highways, not off-road paths. After intense lobbying, Congress passed the Sims Act several years ago, which authorized the Recreational Trail Program, an arm of the Federal Highway Administration. The program helps develop and maintain trains and trail related facilities for non-motorized and motorized use.
“Thanks to them a small percentage of the money used for off highway trails,” said Laurie Giannotti, of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection’s Recreational Trails and Greenways Program.
Last year, the state DEP awarded the NRVT Steering Committee a $180,000 grant toward finishing the project, which is projected to cost $225,000. The grant will fund a routing study to define the best route for the trail as it passes through five towns: Norwalk, Wilton, Redding, Ridgefield and Danbury.
The grant comes with a matching component. However, that can come from in-kind services.
“There is no expectation that the town’s will have to put in any money for this,” said Pat Sesto, Wilton’s director of environmental affairs. “All of the volunteers’ time goes toward this. And that’s recognition of the value of volunteerism.”
There are about 22 people on the steering committee alone, Sesto said. And the number of volunteers likely will increase as the project moves forward.
The 80-mile long Farmington Canal Trail, which extends from near New Haven up to Massachusetts, is the closest relative to the Norwalk River Valley Trail, Giannotti said.
However, unlike the Farmington trail, the NRVT presents more topographical challenges. The terrain from Norwalk to Danbury is decidedly hilly, Sesto said.
If, as John Muir once said, in every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks, then area residents will be greatly rewarded. But like Muir’s beloved trees, the project won’t be completed overnight.
“I don’t want to say it’s anybody’s guess, but it’s anybody’s guess,” Sesto said.
The trail will link two existing trails. The first in Norwalk now ends at Union Park. The second, the Ives Trail, is located in Danbury. Along the way other trails can join it like tributaries on a river.
This year, the NRVT will also get technical assistance from the National Park Service's Rivers and Trails Program. This program helps community groups and municipalities to conserve rivers, preserve open space and develop trails and greenways.
John Monroe, an outdoor recreational planner with the National Park Service, said he looks forward to the planned series of workshops next month. Residents from the towns are invited to offer their ideas and ask questions about the project.
Next month, residents from all five towns in the Norwalk River corridor are invited to attend a series of community workshops to help to plan the trail. They’ll work in small groups to decide how best to connect the trail to schools, town centers and train stations. Monroe will be on hand to answer questions.
“I’ve mostly taken windshield tours of the area because it’s been such a tough winter,” Monroe said. For now he’s only worked with Google Maps and Google Earth.
A complete 3-mile loop around Norwalk Harbor is nearly finished.
“Trails will help increase economic development and raise quality of life. There are a lot of economic benefits to developing trails. It’s a great time to be doing this,” said Monroe who has worked on trail projects throughout New England for 19 years. “There is still funding out there because trails are seen as an economic benefit.”
The Connecticut Greenway’s research shows that businesses are attracted to projects such as NRVT and homes along such trails see an increase in property values.
Sesto seconded that notion.
“It’s kind of funny, people express a lot of the same fears at the start of these projects,” Sesto said. “They worry the crime rate will go up that property values will come down. Then, when the trail is built they realize it’s a huge asset.”
When the NRVT is finished it will connect to rail stations, schools and offices and offering clean, green transportation as well as recreational opportunities, Sesto said.
The project now has a Facebook site with 123 "friends." That number grows daily.
"We've been cruising right along, people are enthusiastic," Sesto said. "Momentum has not been a challenge for us."