Historic protection may save ferry

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Glastonbury - posted Tue., Jul. 26, 2011
The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry is in danger of being closed. Its history may be its salvation. File Photo by Steve Smith.
The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry is in danger of being closed. Its history may be its salvation. File Photo by Steve Smith.

Could the answer to saving the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry (and its sister ferry, the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry) be in a state statute that already exists?

The ferries, operated by the CT Department of Transportation, would be part of proposed cuts to the state budget, should employee labor unions not come to a concession deal with the state.

At a round-table brainstorming session, hosted by Rep. Prasad Srinivasan (R-31st) held at the Welles-Turner Library on July 25, a packed room, including town officials from both Rocky Hill and Glastonbury as well as other state legislators and numerous residents of several area towns, many ideas of how to keep the ferries from being cut were suggested.

The word of the ferries’ possible closure has attracted national attention, including a recent segment on CBS's Sunday Morning – in part, because the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry is the oldest still-running ferry in the country.

The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry takes in about $48,000 per year, yet takes upward of $400,000 to operate, while being open only seasonally (about 6 months of the year) with hours from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Some suggestions for making the ferry more profitable included better promotion of the ferry, so that it would be used by more travelers, and extending the hours to include the most common commuter times of day.

Christopher Brown of Hartford, a cycling enthusiast who frequently uses the ferry, said the cost of the ferry’s operation causes its proponents to get defensive, but they shouldn’t be.

“It’s the only part of our state’s transportation system that actually makes money,” Brown said, alluding to the fact that the fare amounts to a toll – something that is not currently collected on any other roadway.

Glastonbury Town Councilman Chip Beckett said it’s time to figure out a way to wrest the control of the ferry away from the state.

“I think there are better ways to run this ferry far, far cheaper with far, far better service,” Beckett said, “so we can have commuters, we can have people come for the restaurants, and have pedestrian and bike access. I think we ought to get going forward on saying we don’t need the state of Connecticut.”

Rocky Hill Chamber of Commerce Director Paul Carr said he was charged with finding alternatives, including privatization of the ferry. Carr said that a page he created on facebook.com, entitled “Save the Rocky Hill/Glastonbury Ferry” gained 2,700 fans in one week.

“I’m convinced that there is enough passion within this population to perhaps form a foundation…and move toward privatization of this ferry,” Carr said.
Others opposed the privatization, which would seem to conflict with the historical significance of the ferry. A non-profit organization and a public-private partnership were suggested as alternatives.

Rocky Hill Mayor Anthony LaRosa said a lawsuit has been suggested by the town of Lyme to stop the ferry closing based on its historic status, and that town's attorney has reviewed that suit and suggests a similar course.

The ferries are listed on the National Registry of Historical Places. That listing would seem to qualify the site under state statues, including Section 22a-19a, which protect historical sites.

“It may be possible to save it in this manner,” LaRosa said, “and require the state of Connecticut to continue funding.”

Others wanted to take the lawsuit further, while some suggested that it be a last resort.

Rocky Hill Town Manager Barbara Gilbert said the suit would only need to serve as a “stay of execution” for the ferry.

“It stops the closing of the ferry,” Gilbert said, “to allow the towns to do what they have to do [and/or] to allow any private foundations to be formed…and for a plan of attack to be prepared.”

Gilbert added that the suit would not seek a monetary goal, and would be relatively inexpensive to mount.

Jim Bennett, executive director of the Historical Society of Glastonbury, suggested there may be an even less-expensive solution along that line of thought. He said the lawsuit may not be necessary at all, and that a mere suggestion to the Attorney General may be all that it takes.

“Being on the national and state historical registries, it has protection under Connecticut’s Environmental Protection Act,” Bennett said. “It says that buildings, structures, [and] open spaces that exist within a national or state registered historical district are protected. Anybody in this room could go to the Attorney General’s office and say that shutting down the ferry, in itself, is like destroying this historic monument. To me, it’s already there on the books. We just need to proceed.”

Bennett added that there are no other historical sites in the state that take in any income, yet all are funded in the state budget.

“No historic site in the state makes money,” he said. “Why does this historic site have to make more than the rest of them? To me it’s ridiculous to even bring it up.”

Bennett said that one of the municipalities, or perhaps even the Historical Society, should be the party to appeal to the Attorney General, adding that other historical landmarks have been saved in a similar fashion.

“It’s held up in court [before],” Bennett said. “I don’t see why the ferry district and the ferry can’t fit right in.”

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