Ridgefield has a stretch of riverside trail in its future
From a someday dream of scenic walks along 30 miles of woodlands and river’s edge to a 10-foot wide stone-dust-covered trail welcoming hikers and bikers and parents with baby-strollers, the Norwalk River Valley Trail has come a long way. And it’s got a long way still to go — with a good part of that distance in Ridgefield.
“The full route from Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk to Rogers Park in Danbury is 30 miles — someday,” said Charlie Taney, president of Friends of the Norwalk River Valley Trail.
“About eight miles has been constructed so far — those miles are all in Norwalk and Wilton.”
The first section of the Norwalk River Valley Trail or “NRVT” to be completed — the “showcase trail,” as Taney calls it — is known as “the Wilton Loop,” and he said it’s getting about 6,000 visits a month.
“It’s extremely popular,” Taney said. “If you go out there for an afternoon, you’ll see everything from hikers, runners, people on their bikes, people walking their dogs. You’ll see moms with baby strollers, and you’ll see seniors looking a safe level place to walk.
“It really attracts a very wide range of users. It’s a safe, 10-foot-wide stone-dust trail set in a safe setting in the woods that’s easily available for people to use, and people use it in big numbers now.”
The project got started eight years ago. “A route study for the whole thing was done in 2012, that was really the beginning of the NRVT project,” Taney said.
More trail sections are in the works.
“We have three miles in the pipeline that are fully funded and pretty much ready to build,” Taney said. “Roughly about a mile in Norwalk to be built and a mile that connects Wilton and Norwalk is called the ‘WilWalk’ section. And then there’s the ‘Redding Mile’ that’s in process.”
Environmental studies and field surveys are being done on the Redding Mile.
“We’re aiming to build that this year,” Taney said.
In between Norwalk and Wilton, where trail sections have been and are being built, and Redding, where the trail will soon be under construction, is Ridgefield.
“We’re very excited about the future of Ridgefield,” said Taney.
“The first section to be built in Ridgefield is the ‘Ridgefield Ramble.’ It starts at the corner Simpaug Turnpike and Route 7 — by the new Little League field — it goes a mile and a half up to the Redding line, at Fire Hill Road.
“On Fire Hill Road, that’s where the ‘Redding Mile’ starts,” he said. “After we build the Ridgefield Ramble, we‘ll have a mile and half and that‘ll connect to the Redding mile — which is going to be built this year, and that’ll be there waiting for us when we get the Ridgefield Ramble built.
“And we’ll have about two and half miles that’ll be connecting Ridgefield and Redding, all off-road, all through beautiful woodlands — it’s a really beautiful section.”
“What makes the Norwalk River Valley Trail special is a couple of things,” Taney said,
“It’s a 10-foot-wide stone-dust trail. Remember the old cinder tracks we used to have in high school? it’s very firm, but it’s got a little bit of give — it’s really great to walk on, to run on.
“It’s also handicapped accessible. Everyone can use it whether you’re a mom with a baby stroller, an old dude like me, or a kid learning to ride your bike.
“Our trail in Wilton — about two and a quarter miles, the Wilton Loop — it’s our showcase trail and it’s the first part of the Norwalk River Valley Trail that was built. It was voted the number one amenity by the people of Wilton,” Taney said.
“We participate in the Connecticut trail census, one of 15 trails, and they have an infrared counter — we’re up to over 6,000 counts a month,” he said. “You talk about ‘if you build it, they will come.’
“We’re very confident we’ll get the same usage when we build in Redding and Ridgefield and connect to Ridgefield to the Redding Mile.”
One of the key aspects that separates the NRVT from other trails is that people don’t have to be athletic prime-of-lifers to enjoy it.
“There’s no shortage of foot trails,” Taney said. “There’s lots of foot trails and lots of them are beautiful. But you can’t take a little kid on a bike on them. You can’t take a baby stroller on them. Or someone who’s an older person who’s a little unsteady on their feet — they can’t handle those rough footpaths.”
The Norwalk River Valley Trail is “easy to use, accessible, and in the same kind of beautiful setting — I think that explains why it was voted number one in Wilton,” Taney said.
Taney said the NRVT organizers have been talking with Ridgefield officials — First Selectman Rudy Marconi, the Planning and Zoning Commission, Inland Wetlands Board, the Conservation Commission.
Ridgefield’s existing “Rail Trail” runs from the center of town along the old railroad line down to Florida Road in the Branchville area. Town officials have talked of connecting that to the Norwalk River Valley Trail — making it a branch off the trail, as the old train tracks it follows was once a branch of the main train line from Norwalk to Danbury. Town officials view a connection of the two trails as a potential way of bringing more people — and business — to the center of Ridgefield.
“We have good support in Ridgefield,” Taney said.
“People are very supportive of the project and willing to be helpful to us.”
Pat Sesto, chairwoman of Ridgefield’s new independent Inland Wetlands Board, serves on the NRVT board and was its chair before Taney.
“I got involved about 12 years ago when there was an initiative at the state level to assess their land holdings,” Sesto said. “This brought together the five towns in the ‘Super 7’ corridor to reinvigorate past efforts to use the corridor for a trail.
“My role came about by happenstance as I lived in Ridgefield and was the Environmental Affairs Director for Wilton and ended up heading the initiative. I was immensely grateful Wilton found my leadership of the five-town effort to be of value to them,” she said.
“The 2.5 miles we have completed in Wilton have been enthusiastically received and listed as Wilton’s number one amenity. People are eager to have more,” she said. “I want this for Ridgefield, too.
“The 10-foot wide, packed cinder trail provides an experience much different than any trail offerings Ridgefield has. There is something joyful about being in the woods on a path that allows friends and families to enjoy each other side by side. Others use the trail as part of their overall bike route. How great to have this safe and varied experience to add to an outing. Ridgefield doesn’t know what it’s missing!”
She had one additional thought on the planned Ridgefield stretch of trail.
“Eastern Ridgefield is rarely the focus of amenities, or a destination, short of the ballfields on that side of town. The NRVT, in conjunction with the Rail Trail, will create a wonderful draw and connection to Ridgefield center from Branchville, then points north and south — eventually.”
Of course, successful fund-raising is the key to progress.
“We’re about to get started again in Ridgefield,” Taney said.
“So, our goal for the coming year in Ridgefield, we want to raise the money to finish all the pre-construction work. The trail is pretty expensive to build.”
Most of the trail’s route in Ridgefield is on land owned by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and associated with Route 7 or the long-planned but now abandoned Super 7 highway project.
“We’re on DOT property so we have to satisfy their requirements,” Taney said. “There’s wetlands permits. We have to do surveying. All that has to be done before we want to start building.
“The pre-construction work for Ridgefield Ramble comes in at about $150,000, and we’ve raised about $30,000 so far,” Taney said.
“We have the trail plan done,” he said. “...We’ve done our wetlands flagging, to be sure we know where the wetlands are.
“So, that’s been done to the tune of about $30,000,” he said. “We have another $120,000 to raise to complete the pre-construction work.”
Then they’ll fund-raise to actually build their first stretch of trail in Rodgefield.
“We’ll build a demonstration trail,” Taney said. “We’re following the model we used in Wilton, where we build a demonstration trail so people can see what it’s like and that helps you raise the rest of the money.
“If you put the two things together we have to raise about $350,000 to do the pre-construction work ($150,000) and demonstration trail ($200,000).
“We’re just starting that fund raising campaign,” he said.
“We’re about to build the three miles in Norwalk and Wilton and Redding. While that’s getting underway we want to get really busy raising the money so we can finish the pre-construction work and start building in Ridgefield. We want to add Ridgefield to the towns we’re building in.”
Taney said trail organizers have a good start on the fund-raising.
“We already have donors in Ridgefield,” he said.
The trail ahead
Still, there’s a distance to go. How long do organizers envision it taking to complete the entire trail, all 30 miles from Norwalk to Danbury?
“That’s a long way down the road,” Taney admitted. “We’ve got about eight miles now, we’re building another three in the next year or so.”
Then there’s the mile and half Ridgefield Ramble, connecting to the Redding Mile.
“We’re about three or four years away from being about half way done,” Taney said. “And that’s the easy half.”
He’s figuring that first half of the trail might be done by about 2024 — 12 years since the 2012 route study got the project kicked off.
The second half will be tougher.
“In certain places there’s private property we have to cross — we’ll have to get easements. There are some sections that are especially challenging geographically — long wetlands where you have to build boardwalks to cross the wetland, or steep switchbacks,” Taney said.
“The next 15 miles out of the 30, it’ll take 15 years to complete,” he estimated.
“It’s a long project,” he said.
“Out west, it’s much easier to build these trails,” he said.
There’s open land, and plenty of public land, and fewer political jurisdictions to deal with in the west. Trail routes can be designed to follow paths of least resistance.
“It’s much tricker to build a long trail like this through five towns, where people have been living since 1620,” Taney said.
These difficulties led to the approach the NRVT organizers are taking.
“We try to do our planning so, as we build the trail we’ll create these nice long sections that people are going to love and use, and that give us a lot of momentum to get more of the trail built,” Taney said.
“You build them piece by piece, and then you connect the pieces.”
He said people can learn more about the trial — and donating to it — at its website.
“Google ‘Norwalk River Valley Trail,’ ” he said.
“Everybody knows where the Orem’s Diner is in Wilton — right above Orem’s Diner is the entrance to the section of trail in Wilton, our showcase trail,” he said. “I’d encourage people to go try out the trail in Wilton — they’ll see why it’s the number one amenity in WIlton. It’s a terrific trail.”
The Norwalk River Valley Trail Association has a board that generally meets monthly at Wilton’s Comstock Community Center. But the NRVT board’s annual meeting will be in the Wilton Library on March 30, at 6 p.m. State Senator Will Haskell is expected to be the guest speaker
“We have a terrific group of people from all five towns. We meet once a month. Our meetings are open,” Taney said.
The project has just gotten past a difficult stretch, he said, and should be picking up momentum.
“We were held up,” Taney said. “...We go through a lot of DOT property. There was an issue between the towns and the DOT that delayed us about a year and a half. That’s been cleared up, it’s all settled, and now we’re ready to start rocking and rolling.”