Published October 08. 2013 4:00AM
Groton - The director of Groton Utilities said Monday that just because other utility companies allow public trails on their land, that doesn't mean Groton Utilities has to do the same.
"That dog don't hunt," Director Phil Yatcko told an audience of more than 40 people on Monday.
Yatcko was one of four who spoke during a panel discussion about a potential trail from the Preston Community Park through Ledyard, to Bluff Point State Park. The Tri Town Trail Association organized the panel discussion at the Senior Center to learn more about the process for creating a trail, what has been done elsewhere and what issues it might face.
Yatcko said the utility has not allowed its property to be opened to the public for at least the last five years. He said it was opened previously but the access had to end because of people riding horses and concerns about horse manure.
He said the utility property was not designed for public use, and would need to make "measurable and significant" investments to allow it, although he declined to give a specific cost.
But he said the utility would need additional gates, security, fencing, roads and possibly a police force to protect the water supply and unauthorized access.
"Frankly, people get injured. People get sick," he said adding, "And let's be even more frank. People are dirty."
He said the utility would have to cover these costs somehow, and he didn't think water rate payers would want to pay for it, nor would taxpayers. He also said he was concerned about liability if someone were using a trail, got hurt and sued.
Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, and another panelist, said municipalities are protected from liability under a recent change in the law provided the municipality or, in this case, a utility, as long as it doesn't charge a fee or go out of its way to hurt someone.
Hammerling said some water companies that allow access to their land charge the fee anyway, knowing they expose themselves to liability, because they need to recover the costs and believe the likelihood of a lawsuit is small.
Barbara Kil, a member of the Tri Town Trail Committee, said she realized the committee had long way to go to convince the utility company to let it use its land, yet she felt having Yatcko at the meeting was a big step.
"I'm not discouraged," she said.
Town Councilor Bruce Flax said he was glad Yatcko attended but didn't like his message.
"All we ever hear from him is 'no,'" Flax said.
Lori J. Mathieu, public health section chief with the state Department of Public Health, said she signs many permits that allow public access for trails but is also aware of utilities that do not allow it. The department can offer a water company the choice but can't make a water company open its land, she said.
She also said successful ventures depend on long-term relationships between the utility and volunteers who can help with issues like preventing all terrain vehicles and littering.
"Think through every point that you've heard here today and all of the challenges," she said.