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Hundreds Turn Out To Fight To Keep MDC Property Open

Paul Kramer will turn 68 on Thursday, a birthday that might never have been without the Metropolitan District's Reservoir 6.

For the past 14 years, Kramer has left his Avon home in the early morning and power-walked its pristine trails, logging 20,000 miles and meeting new friends along the way. Some have diabetes, or cancer, or simply high cholesterol. Kramer, a retired college professor who survived a 1996 artery blockage, strengthens his heart.

"I'm still alive," Kramer said Tuesday evening in West Hartford Town Hall, teary-eyed after asking members of the Metropolitan District Commission not to close its vast land to the public. "I get emotional because of what I do at the reservoir. The thought of losing that is not an easy one for me to handle."

More than 350 people with their own stories squeezed into the town hall auditorium for the district's special meeting, and scores more were blocked at the entrance because of fire code concerns. Although the MDC has not recommended banning public use of its 10,000-plus acres around Greater Hartford — and no votes were taken Tuesday — the district's water bureau is reviewing its recreational policy after a jury sided with an injured mountain biker and slapped the MDC with a $2.9 million civil judgment in May.

On Tuesday, at least two dozen bikes were parked outside town hall, locked to trees, benches and lampposts. Inside, there were men and women in racing gear, politicians in suits, lanky teenagers in their high school track and field shirts, preservationists, environmentalists, and mothers and fathers and grandparents.

The district's properties include the 3,000-acre West Hartford Reservoir and Reservoir 6, near Farmington Avenue and Route 44; the 1,626-acre Lake McDonough area in Barkhamsted and New Hartland; and the 6,107-acre West Branch area in northwestern Connecticut. The water and sewer agency is the second -largest landowner in the state, and for decades, its miles of trails have been used by tens of thousands each year for hiking, running, walking and mountain biking, and cross-country skiing in the winter.

For Peter Phelps, a 53-year-old chef, the West Hartford Reservoir was a place near the family home where his two kids could practice riding their bicycles, and where he can still go with them for a quiet moment. State Rep. David Baram, D-Bloomfield, took his wife there for the couple's first date in high school.

"Of course she questioned my motives," Baram told the MDC Tuesday, "but it turned out to be a nice event."

Baram was one of several politicians who took turns at the microphone to pledge action in closing a loophole in state law that allows a municipal entity such as the MDC to be sued for recreational injuries. Among them were Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman, who pedaled to the meeting on her bike; West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka, warning commission members against a decision that would make "people lose faith in government"; and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who said his office would look into the loophole issue.

But State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, reprimanded the MDC.

"I want to be clear: My town is not considering closing all of its public, recreational lands. Neither are any of the towns around," said Fleischmann, who hikes the trails. "So I think it's rather outrageous that we're talking tonight about closing down. … You, the MDC, exist because we the people gave you your lands and your waters."

Earlier in the meeting, the district's lawyer, R. Bartley Halloran, said the $2.9 million judgment "changes everything." It appeared to be the first time that the MDC was held liable for a recreational injury. The verdict, Halloran said, could drive up the cost of insurance when the district's policy is up for renewal, "if it is renewed."

This is not the first time the district has considered its risks, however. In 1998, the district adopted an ordinance requiring mountain bikers, skateboarders and in-line skaters to wear helmets after the 1996 state Supreme Court decision in Conway v. Wilton. The court held that the state's recreational land use statute, which offers protection to private landowners who allow free access to their properties, did not extend to municipalities.

In that case, Amy Jeanne Conway sued the town of Wilton after seriously hurting her knee and ankle during a 1986 state high school tennis championship at Wilton High School. Conway's lawyers argued that the town courts were defective.

In the recent jury award against the district, a Superior Court judge ruled that the quasi-public agency, as a municipal corporation, was also not immune to liability. The plaintiff, Maribeth Blonski of Rocky Hill, suffered serious injuries when she crashed her mountain bike into a yellow gate in West Hartford Reservoir while riding the wrong way on a trail in 2002.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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