Theft and Vandals Bring Meadows Farmers to Council
ROCKY HILL - The Town Council opted to wait for a Town Attorney opinion on whether they can close the gate leading into the agricultural landmark Great Meadows-a request made by farmers whose property has been vandalized over the years-but an existing town ordinance at least gives them the authority to bar outside access from sunset to sunrise.

       Town Manager John Mehr was directed by Council consensus Monday night to seek the opinion, with Councilors agreeing to take action at its next regular meeting.

       Before the Council could discuss its options on the issue-rampant vandalism, theft, littering, and other outside deterrents to farm operations-it fielded more than an hour of public comments both from farmers, residents that frequent the area’s scenic route, and members of the Great Meadows Conservation Trust.

       All in attendance expressed concern regarding the vandalism and theft, with speakers taking different approaches on how best to deal with it.

       John Matley, a Rocky Hill lifer who grew up in the Meadows, was among the many farmers that spoke in favor of having the gate-by a proposed new ordinance-shut to outside motor vehicle traffic around the clock. The area would still be open to bicycle and foot traffic.

       “I don’t feel it should be a public park or playground. A lot of people have been making their life off those fields for years,” Matley said. “This town has more parks, walkways, places to play than a lot of other towns do. I feel it should be left to the farmers to do what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years.”

       And the place has become a dumping ground, he said.

       “We used to pick up garbage all the time,” he said. “You’d find beds, toilets-anything anybody didn’t want.”

       Any trespassing on farm property also creates liability for the growers themselves, said Michele Collins, a Meadows farmer. People who let dogs run without a lease, for example, can create costly contamination of crops, and a potential revoking of a farm’s USDA licensing-which allows a business to sell to large retailers-she said.

       Vandalism and theft has cost her operation up to $60,000 per year in losses.

       The issue-a problem for sometime, by farmer accounts-rose to the forefront this past March, when farmer Jack Morgan reported an incident of vandalism that resulted in a loss of $130,000 worth of sod and mulch.

       The Rocky Hill Police have trouble tracking down suspects without a license plate number, and the area-1,000 acres in size-is too large for the Department to deploy regular patrols to using current resource levels.

       “I would really like to see the gates closed. I’ve incurred a substantial amount of vandalism and theft over the years,” said farmer Lisa Gilbert.

       While even walkers and bicyclists that frequent the area endorsed closing the area to motor vehicle traffic, Ed Ciccarello-a had a different take. He cited the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development-drafted in 2015-and a stated goal of connecting recreational and open space in a “green belt”, while connecting the town with the Connecticut River.

       While the vandalism and theft is a concern that needs to be addressed, closing the Meadows off vehicular access would deny residents other benefits-such as the ability to experience a world of open space, as well as pursue educational opportunities through touring the area-he said.

       Rocky Hill is a changing town, most older residents lament how their town has become congested by Route 3 and the Silas Deane Highway-who wouldn’t want to escape the busy streets and take a drive through open space?” he said. “Turn the bend past golf brook and you’re transported back in time. If the town were to ban vehicular only a select few would be able to access this heaven on earth and I would be another Rocky Hillian lamenting the change to his town.”

       Banning outside vehicular traffic is also an issue for residents unable to walk or bike the route, he said.

       So Meadows Conservation Trust President Christopher Duff proposed finding middle ground, and he laid out a number of measures that could be taken to balance both interests.

       Better signage-communicating the rules as well as fines, which both speakers and Councilors hope to increase greatly-would certainly be a start, Duff said. If the town opts to go in the direction of banning outside vehicular access, perhaps a special permitting process could be established for supervised educational events, he said.

       “It’s a powerful thing to go to the Meadows,” Duff said. “If people don’t feel a sense of town wide ownership, they’re going to continue to do bad things to the area.”

       Resident suggestions included implementing some kind of surveillance mechanism-such as cameras at the front gate-to help police track down violators. Councilors indicated that they would be willing to explore that and more-expressing support even for some type of drone driven watch.

       Councilors Joe Kochanek and Tony La Rosa were firmly in favor of closing the gate 24/7, while Councilor William O’Sullivan recommended a more cautious approach. While the town will seek a formal opinion form its legal counsel, a quick look at State General Statute Section 7-148 indicates that the Council would be within its authority to restrict vehicle access to the road, O’Sullivan said.

       Councilor Catherine Vargas suggested-at the very least-banning dog walking in the area, while pointing to the town’s own dog park.