By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
THOMPSON, Conn. — For more than a year, the town’s Inland Wetlands Commission, Planning & Zoning Commission and Board of Selectmen have been holding hearings and meetings regarding requests to alter wetlands near Rhode Island’s Buck Hill Management Area.
Two applications have been filed in the past year, by the same party, to develop parts of the same parcel, about 112 acres of subdivided land near the intersection of the Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts borders. The first application, which the town denied, called for building a bridge and gravel driveway into the woods. The owner of the land, River Junction Estates LLC, said it wanted to open up the space for hikers.
The area has been deemed “unbuildable,” and the only access to the property from the end of Starr Road is through private property, according to various maps and documents.
The property sits northwest of Starr Road, and the 0.15-mile town road that ends in a cul de sac is at the heart of the ongoing issue. Abutters to the River Junction Estates (RJE) property call the dirt path that begins at the end of paved Starr Road a trail and note its intermediate water flow; Allan Rawson of RJE and his attorney claim it once was used as a road and under Connecticut state law still is.
The designation of that path, and who is entitled to access it besides the two abutting neighbors, is at the crux of the ongoing debate. Town attorney William St. Onge has noted that there are a number of opinions regarding the dirt path.
At a public hearing in January, the Hartford Courant reported that St. Onge told the Inland Wetlands Commission that, “As the town attorney, I don't feel the section of Starr Road beyond the cul de sac to the Rhode Island line is a town road of Thompson at this time.”
The path hasn’t been on town road records or maintained by the town in more than six decades, according to St. Onge. Various maps dating back to 1956 refer to the dirt path after Starr Road as abandoned or impassable.
Rawson and his attorney believe otherwise, however, claiming the dirt path has long been a public road. In an April 19 letter to the Board of Selectmen, Rawson's attorney, Stephen Penny, writes that in 1977 Starr Road was a gravel road all the way to the Rhode Island border.
A group of about dozen neighbors have argued that the access point to the dirt path is legally owned by two families who abut the property. The abutters have hired a attorney. A court will likely decide.
RJE’s second applications is asking the town permission to build water diversions on the property. The attorney representing the abutting landowners has said RJE hasn’t given sufficient reasons as to why it plans to divert water for proposed development near the disputed dirt path.
Rawson’s father founded Rawson Materials, a quality aggregate producer, in 1947, and the business currently runs a mining operation not far from the area in question. Rawson has told the town he has no plans to mine gravel on the RJE property.
To further complicate the issue, Rawson and another man were photographed and videotaped earlier this month altering wetlands within the Buck Hill Management Area.
In the April 8 video — shot by Thompson resident Rob Mann who has been documenting water flow in the Starr Road area for several months — Rawson can be seen moving rocks and leaves. Mann hasn’t made the video public, but he did allow ecoRI News to watch it.
In response to an ecoRI News request for comment about the ongoing issue and the recent video, Rawson's son Jeffery, president of Rawson Materials, e-mailed us Penny's April 19 letter to selectmen. The letter doesn't address Mann's recently shot video.
Mann became interested in the issue last year, after a few contentious hearings and allegations of document/map forgery at Town Hall. He said he was as surprised as Rawson when they bumped into each other in the Rhode Island woods.
“He was moving rocks and leaves to change the flow of water,” Mann said. “What else could he be doing?”
Water flow on and around the dirt path area is a point of contention in the ongoing case.
Mann has filed a complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, among other agencies. His five-page letter claims “Mr. Allan Rawson and his Connecticut Licensed Engineer were altering and re-routing the water flow of this stream channel collectively ... all without proper permits from the required agencies.”
When asked by Connecticut radio station WINY (1350-AM) if he went through the legal processes necessary to alter the watercourse, Rawson said, “Yeah, that's certainly not a problem with what I did. Anything that was done was returned to the condition that it was before we went there.”
Rawson also made it clear that Rhode Island authorities, who he confirmed will be investigating the matter, knew what he and his engineer were doing in the nature preserve, according to WINY.
ecoRI News retraced Mann’s steps with him on April 15. It had been a few days since it rained, but water was flowing on parts of the dirt path in Connecticut. Around the path were vernal ponds, multiple water channels, natural springs and wetlands vegetation.
“The water runs way beyond a storm event,” Mann said. “Water runs five to six months out of the year here. It’s likely salamander breeding ground.”