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7 Years After Couple Was Killed By Falling Tree On Parkway, Family Finally Sues State
Case Was Delayed As Plaintiffs First Had To Win Claims Commissioner's OK To Bring Action Against State
Hartford Courant
Jon Lender, Government Watch
2:29 PM EDT, May 17, 2014

A 70-foot tree fell on a car driving down the Merritt Parkway in Westport in 2007, killing a husband and wife before the eyes of their 7- and 9-year old sons, who were seated behind them.

Now — after a seven-year delay caused largely by the state's "sovereign immunity" system for winnowing out legal claims against it — relatives of physician Joseph J. Stavola and attorney Jeanne C. Serocke-Stavola have finally filed a lawsuit against the state in Hartford Superior Court for potentially millions of dollars in damages.

The March 28 lawsuit provides another example of the complicated system that people have to navigate if they want to sue the state for financial damages. Plaintiffs must first request that the Connecticut claims commissioner waive the "sovereign immunity" that is granted by law to the state government to shield it against being sued.

Many claimants never get bring their cases to Superior Court. In a much-publicized example, state Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. denied permission last year for Charla Nash to sue the state over injuries from a brutal 2009 chimpanzee attack — and, in recent weeks, the state legislature denied Nash's appeal from Vance's decision.

However, Vance did grant permission for the family of the Merritt Parkway victims to sue the state. On April 1, 2013, he ruled that the facts of the case met the legal standard "that the State of Connecticut could be liable if it were a private person."

Glastonbury lawyer David G. Hill could not be reached for comment late last week on why it took nearly a year to initiate the suit.

If the lawsuit runs its course in court — that is, if it isn't settled or dismissed early, and goes to trial — the seven years that have elapsed since the 2007 tragedy could conceivably stretch close to a decade.

Hill's court papers didn't specify the amount of damages being sought, and used only a legally required minimum figure of $15,000 "or more." However, documents presented at a 2012 hearing before the claims commissioner listed amounts of:

•$6 million on behalf of the state of Joseph Stavola, who was 46 when he died.

•$5 million on behalf of the estate of his wife, who was 44.

• $2 million each on behalf of sons James and William Stavola, who now are in their teens.

Whether those are still the amounts being claimed is unknown.

Plaintiffs in the suit are James Horan, executor of the estates of the couple from Pelham Manor, N.Y., and John Stavola of Glastonbury, Joseph's brother and guardian of James and William. Defendants are listed as the State of Connecticut and its commissioner of transportation, James P. Redeker.

"James and William Stavola witnessed their parents' tragic death from the back seat and sustained significant physical and emotional injuries as a result of having done so," the lawsuit says.

"Defendants had a duty to use reasonable care to keep its property in a condition that did not endanger motorists like the Stavola family," it continues. "As part of that duty, [they] also had a duty to inspect and/or ensure that the trees on its property were maintained in a reasonably safe condition."

The pine tree that fell was not safe, but was in "defective condition" because of decay in its trunk, the suit says.

The office of the Attorney General George Jepsen will represent the state in court, as it did in the three-day hearing at the office of the claims commissioner in 2012.

"It's our responsibility to defend the state," said Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn, although "our sympathies go out to the family for this awful tragedy."

Tree Hit Windshield

In many ways, the court action is likely to replay arguments made in documents submitted to the claims commissioner. According to that file, the Stavola family was driving south on the parkway about 9:15 p.m. on June 9, 2007, in a Volvo XC90 SUV when the tree toppled from about 35 feet off the roadway and 15 feet up an embankment and smashed through the windshield.

"As upsetting as this incident is, its impact is magnified by the realization that it could and should have been avoided, if the Department of Transportation had simply done its job," Hill wrote to the claims commissioner. "It didn't and two people are dead."

The attorney general's office denies that DOT officials were negligent. A state landscape designer performs slow-speed, visual drive-by inspections twice a year along the tree-lined highway that is famous for its park-like scenery. Those summer and winter drive-bys "are a reasonable and recognized method of inspecting roadside trees," Assistant Attorney General Michael R. Bullers wrote response to the claim.

Bullers has filed an appearance in Superior Court to defend against the newly-filed lawsuit.

The case that was presented before the claims commissioner was filled with intriguing details of tree science. Experts for both sides argued over whether deterioration of the base of the tree trunk, which led to the tree's toppling, was visible and should have been detected by DOT personnel.

Hill had a full-scale model of the tree's base, showing a large scar, brought to Vance's state office as an exhibit in the hearing. He said in a legal filing to Vance that the DOT's landscape designer admitted in a deposition that if he'd known the tree had a scar at its base — 38-by-26 inches — "he would have inspected the tree closer."

"He further admitted that if any of the DOT workers had seen that scar, they would and should have notified him immediately," Hill wrote. Hill noted that an expert witness in forestry concluded that the scar had existed for five or 10 years since a stem broke away from the trunk -- and that it was "readily visible" from the road. The tree "had a significant lean" toward the road, Hill added.

Bullers, however, argued at the time that the state's expert witness didn't agree that the scar had existed that long. But, even assuming it had been there all that time, he said the maximum number of drive-by inspections over that period would have been 20, with 10 of them done when "the foliage is in full bloom, making visibility difficult."

No driver can travel the Merritt Parkway these days with noticing extensive tree cutting, which has been happening for a couple of years. Trees within 30 feet of the pavement are gradually being removed; a DOT spokesman, Kevin Nursick, said the standard for the scenic highway had been 12 feet from the pavement.

Asked if the tree work was in response to the 2007 tragedy, Nursick said no. He said the major storms of 2011 and 2012 — with extended power outages and blocked roads caused by fallen trees — opened everyone's eyes" to the fact that trees near highways must be cut back. Tree-cutting isn't just happening on the Merritt Parkway, but on major highways all over the state, he said.

"To help inoculate the state from storm impacts," Nursick said, the DOT has doubled its number of tree crew members to 50, and has increased the old $500,000-a-year tree-maintenance budget to $1 million. "We were understaffed and under-funded for years."

"We are focusing on a 30-foot 'clear zone," Nursick said. On any highway with a speed limit from 55 to 65 mph., he said the goal is to have a 30-foot margin between the edge of the pavement and any trees. That way, he said, "vehicles that errantly leave the roadway can 'dust off' speed, come to a stop, or recover without striking an immovable object" — a tree, that is.

Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant





Funding for Merritt bridge work approved
Ken Dixon, CT POST
Updated 8:10 p.m., Monday, December 10, 2012

HARTFORD -- The State Bond Commission on Monday approved $14.6 million for road resurfacing, safety improvements and the rehabilitation of bridges along the Merritt Parkway in Stamford and New Canaan.

The work, which will employ more than 200 construction workers, will include $5 million for rebuilding the Metro-North commuter rail bridge over the parkway in New Canaan.  The resurfacing, safety and other bridge improvements are budgeted for $9.6 million. The work is to begin in the spring of 2013.



SUBWAY and DUNKIN' DONUTS signs historic, we ask?  Will parking area increase?
Response positive on Merritt upgrades
Lisa Chamoff, Staff Writer
Updated 08:30 p.m., Friday, December 16, 2011

After working with the firm hired by the state to redesign 23 Connecticut highway service plazas, the chairman of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy said he is happy with the plans for Greenwich.

Peter Malkin, who heads the conservation group, spoke at a public information meeting held by the state Department of Transportation at Town Hall Thursday night. The group has been providing input to Milford-based Project Service LLC, which is redesigning the plazas for northbound Exit 27 and southbound exit 28 on the Merritt to add new fuel pumps that are set farther back from the highway and expand the rest area's main building to include Subway and Dunkin' Donuts, as well as space for a visitors' center. The changes are part of a project to renovate nearly two dozen Connecticut highway service plazas.

"I think they have been cooperative to do what we think is necessary for the neighbors and the parkway," Malkin told the small group gathered in the Town Hall Meeting Room for the forum. "I think the final result is going to be much better than it could have been and much better than it is."

Malkin and Paul Andino, president of Project Service, do disagree over whether signs listing the price of gas at the pumps should be displayed prominently.

"I'm more than a little bit worried about the functional system without any identity of pricing," Andino said, but added he was "willing to talk about it."

Andino said the conservancy had given a lot of input to the project, which doesn't have a start date. The canopies over the gas pumps at each rest area have been scaled back and the historic building will remain, with some upgrades and an addition in the rear.

"This highway has a lot of history attached to it," Andino said. "It's certainly a gem in Greenwich."

Opened in June 1938 as a scenic bypass for the increasingly congested Boston Post Road (Route 1), the Merritt Parkway is considered a National Scenic Byway by the Federal Highway Administration.

Margaret Freiberg, who represents District 7/North Center on the Representative Town Meeting, asked whether there would be large billboards for the two restaurants at the rest area. Andino said there would be minimal signage on the building, with signs a half-mile before the rest area to alert drivers. A rest area on Route 15 in North Haven, which Andino encouraged Greenwich residents to visit to get a sense of what the one in Greenwich will look like, has minimal signage.

"On the property, we're going to be as conservative as possible to maintain the integrity of the building," Andino said.

The facilities are being designed to get people off and on the parkway as quickly as possible, Andino said, and to avoid the backup of cars.

Greenwich resident Gary Silberberg had a concern about the placement of the gas pumps, and thought drivers would have to look at an awkward angle to check for cars coming off the highway into the rest area. Otherwise, he said he was happy with the plans.

"I would say, seeing it for the first time, you've addressed a lot of problems," Silberberg said. "It looks very nice and I'm happy with what I see."

Freiberg said that when she read about the plan, she had concerns about the aesthetics.

"I think the Merritt Parkway was designed to be a work of art the way Central Park is a work of art," Freiberg said. "When I heard Subway and Dunkin' Donuts, I said, `Are these people rolling over in their graves?' "

After attending Thursday night's meeting, Freiberg said her concerns were mostly allayed.

"I must say I feel better now than when I first read about it," Freiberg said. "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, as they say."



MERRITT PARKWAY TRAIL FEASIBILITY AS OF MAY 2012
http://www.ct.gov/dot/cwp/view.asp?a=4185&Q=491882&PM=1




Merritt Parkway trail proposal faces a bumpy road
Jan Ellen Spiegel, CT MIRROR
May 21, 2012

Trumbull -- Will Britnell, principal engineer with the Connecticut Department of Transportation, typically starts meetings on the subject of building a trail along the Merritt Parkway with a quote from Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

That pretty much says it all. The idea of building a trail along the Merritt is opinion-generating. Big time.

"Don't do it," said Jessie Bennett, an attorney who has come to a meeting about the project -- begun as usual with the Voltaire quote -- in Trumbull with her husband Ron Canuel and a list of 25 concerns related to the fact that the Canuel-Bennett home abuts the Merritt right where the trail would likely go. "I think it's going to be an awful project."

But at this sixth in a series of eight meetings in communities that border or intersect the Merritt, there is as usual, disagreement.

"I support the project. I think it's a great opportunity to provide some alternative transportation means and recreational value," said Roger Krahn, who also owns a home adjacent to the Merritt, though on the other side. "The Merritt Parkway is a great resource and this would just enhance it."

That's generally how it goes, Britnell said. "The thought of coming through and building a trail through that corridor obviously scares a lot of people."

On the other hand, he said, "This goes back 15, 20 years. People have been coming to us and asking us to build a trail."

Actually 20 years, when Linda Hoza started the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance just as the notion of an East Coast Greenway -- a trail from Florida to Maine -- was being hatched to include the Merritt in its Connecticut portion. (Some point out that when the Merritt was built beginning in 1934, there were plans for horse trails around it.) Hoza got no traction from the DOT.

"We tried to get meetings with the commissioner over the years," she said from Florida, where she now lives. "It would come down to ... 'How many ways can we say no?'"

Late in the Rell administration the DOT position softened, especially once it became clear that the idea of widening the Merritt and thereby eliminating trail space, would not happen. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, as mayor of Stamford, had been interested in the trail idea, so it was not surprising when DOT Commissioner James Redeker embraced the idea publicly late last year.

That's an emphasis on idea. There is no plan -- something Britnell has explained repeatedly with varying success during meetings. About the only thing the DOT more or less knows is that the trail would be in the parkway's northbound side right of way. That's because the road is situated off to the other side of that right of way, leaving the northbound side with far more space. It would run the full 37.5 miles from the New York border to the Sikorsky Bridge in Stratford. And it would be multi-use.

What's under way right now is phase one of an 18-month, $1.3 million ($1.1 million from a National Scenic Byways grant and $200,000 from the state) feasibility study. Phase one is these listening sessions.

Phase two will be an actual concept based on suggestions and concerns voiced by those attending the initial sessions. Phase three would be public meetings on the trail concept, possibly as soon as this fall and winter. If, at the end, it's determined that a trail is worth building, then we're talking an untold number of years and millions of dollars more.

"They operate at non-warp speed," said Gordon Joseloff, first selectman of Westport, of the DOT. He did not attend the meeting in his town but has concerns about jurisdiction for the trail where it crosses roads that are under the auspices of town police, potential cost to the town and the environmental impact.

"It's an interesting idea," he said. "Trails of this kind next to a highway have worked elsewhere. I think we'd be negligent not to explore it."

Responses pro and con

While Britnell said the meetings have largely produced evenhanded responses pro and con, and he sees no reason why the process won't continue to phase two, in truth the list of concerns is long. The first is privacy for homeowners whose properties would border the trail. With that come issues like noise, trash, rest rooms, emergency access, vandalism, trespassing, liability, crime, parking and fencing.

Another major concern is cost for both building and maintaining a trail. Britnell readily admits these are not bills either the state or any of the communities along the Merritt have any interest in footing.

"We're open to ideas," he said, noting that public-private partnerships seem likely along with volunteer efforts -- even the Boy Scouts -- to do the actual trail maintenance. "That's one of the bigger nuts to crack.

"The state is pretty well wiped out in term of resources to maintain what we have let alone 37 miles of new trail. We've talked to all the towns. Frankly nobody has funds to maintain something like this."

That point was among many hammered home at the Greenwich meeting in March, reportedly the most contentious, with widespread opposition to a trail, especially among those who live adjacent to the parkway. That included former state Sen. William Nickerson.

"This is DOT money which would be much better spent dealing with real DOT pressing needs -- MetroNorth parking," he said, zeroing in on one of a litany of criticisms. "That would be the environmentally friendly thing."

He and many others, including the DOT, noted a third major concern -- how to handle the intersection of the trail with local roads. Britnell said that with the possible exception of a few major roads for which tunnels or small bridges may be constructed, trail users would have to cross several dozen local roads and in some cases detour onto them. That prospect has elicited howls from any number of people concerned about safety for trail users and motor vehicles.

More concerns

Among other issues: environmental concerns around tree removal, landscape alterations, wildlife and wetlands impacts. People brought up construction noise, damage to the road's remaining 66 unique Depression-era bridges. They questioned whether the trail would really be used for transportation and whether DOT's idea of linking it to public attractions like malls, museums and schools and tying it into economic development was realistic.

While DOT says at this point it has no position on the project, it's worth noting their presentation included a slide of an overweight child watching television accompanied by soda and two bags of chips.

And there were concerns that trail users would distract drivers on the parkway, which the DOT said can exceed 80,000 a day in certain spots, causing more slowdowns and even accidents.

"I think the biggest issue, if I was a resident, is privacy," said Frank Smeriglio, Trumbull's town engineer, after the meeting. "The biggest issue if I was a state engineer is distraction on the Merritt Parkway. And the biggest issue for a town engineer is the crossings.

"I think having a trail would be a great thing, and I think it's just maneuvering through the critical parts."

Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, founded in 2002 to revitalize the Merritt corridor, said her organization has many questions and concerns, especially about the character of the parkway, which is a national landmark. But for the moment, the conservancy is not supporting or opposing the project until there's more information.

"At this point we really need to study the design of the trail," she said.

For Josh Lecar, who took up the trail alliance mantle from Linda Hoza, and has a long roster of supporting organizations, the issue may be less the particulars and more the momentum.

"I'm so excited they're committed to this project to the extent they are," he said. "I think there's a very plausible way forward. But people have to have a lot of patience and a lot of stick-to-it-ive-ness once it's off the front burner to keep it going."

The fact that it's on any burner, for Hoza, elicited only one word: "Amazing."

"That all of those years weren't wasted years -- that's very encouraging," she said. "I want to come bike it and not do it with a walker."



Hearings set on Merritt bike/hike trail
Martin Cassidy, Westport NEWS
Published 11:17 a.m., Tuesday, March 13, 2012

State engineers are seeking the public's feedback on the Merritt Parkway bike and pedestrian trail to help plot a potential path for the design of the 37.3-mile path later this year.

"During the first phase we're actually trying to obtain information from local residents and business owners about what types of access they'd like to see," said Will Britnell, principal engineer for the Department of Transportation's state highway design.

The state DOT will hold a series of public workshops in the eight municipalities along the route to gather input for a $1.4 million study of the envisioned path, which has been discussed by cycling enthusiasts for nearly 20 years.

One of the workshops is planned in Fairfield, at 6 p.m. April 10 in Osborn Hill School.

After gathering feedback from residents and officials from Greenwich to Stratford, engineers this summer will attempt to plan a path for the trail and assess logistical challenges involved with building it, Britnell said.

Franklin Bloomer, president of Greenwich Safe Cycling, and Josh Lecar, program coordinator for the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance, said a cultural shift in which residents seek better pedestrian and bicycle access explains the DOT's willingness to pursue the study. "I feel like the DOT, as an internal policy, has accepted the idea that this is something that should happen," Bloomer said.

"There has always been a concern about it from the standpoint of feasibility but you need to do this work to understand the true feasibility of overcoming the obstacles," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. "We're fairly optimistic here of seeing a positive result."

Lecar, the former transportation planner for the city of Stamford, said it is likely the state designers would reduce the financial and environmental impact of the work by routing users of the trail onto major roads in areas where uneven terrain or water pose challenges.

"I expect that there will be some sections that will be able to accommodate bikes, pedestrians, and in some cases, maybe equestrian traffic," Lecar said. "Other sections will be limited because of the topography where the streets will become part of the trail."

The DOT is conducting the study with a $1.096 million grant from the National Scenic Byway Program, with the state putting up $274,000 for the work.

David Kooris, vice president of the Stamford-based Regional Plan Association, said that in concert with other trail projects, the Merritt Parkway trail and work to establish bicycle routes closer to the shoreline could help establish a nearly comprehensive and economically important network for non-motorized travel.

The Regional Plan Association hired a consultant in the early 1990s to conduct the Merritt Parkway Trail Feasibility Study, which argued for creating the trail, which could also become part of the East Coast Greenway, a 2,750-mile network of trails from Florida to Maine.

"It's important to not think about the trail in isolation because when you couple it with projects in Stamford and the Norwalk River Valley trail it becomes part of a system that links suburbs and suburban neighborhoods with downtowns," Kooris said. "It would be incredibly cool to have this phenomenal greenway network that would add a ton of value to our residential neighborhoods."

MERRITT TRAIL WORKSHOPS

- Stamford: March 22, Stamford Government Center, 5:30 p.m.

- Greenwich: March 26, Greenwich Town Hall, 6 p.m.

- New Canaan: April 3, Outback Teen Center, 6 p.m.

- Fairfield: April 10, Osborn Hill School, 6 p.m.


DOT starts study of trail along Merritt Parkway
Greenwich TIME
Staff and wire reports
Published 02:11 p.m., Friday, November 25, 2011

The state Department of Transportation is beginning to study whether a long-discussed multi-use trail along the Merritt Parkway, stretching from Greenwich to Stratford, is feasible.

The proposed trail would be located within the undeveloped highway right-of-way and would use the wooded buffer that now exists between the road and abutting properties. In the planning stages for about two decades, the trail would span more than 37 miles from the New York state line to the Sikorsky Bridge in Stratford and serve as a bicycle and pedestrian path along the historically designated highway.

DOT officials said this week that an extensive public outreach campaign will be undertaken in each of the eight communities along the parkway. They plan to hold a series of public meetings for the study, which is being paid with a $1.096 million grant from the National Scenic Byways Program and $274,000 in state funds.

The study's duration will be impacted by feedback received from stakeholders along the route, but is expected to take a couple of years, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart has said.

The DOT says it also plans to document environmentally sensitive areas and come up with options for avoiding them, possibly diverting the trail onto local loads in certain locations.

The study will also consider including information on the parkway's historically significant features at spots along the route to develop it as a tourist destination.

Supporters of multi-use paths in Connecticut have since the mid-'90s touted the trail concept as a link in the East Coast Greenway, a 2,750-mile network of trails from Florida to Maine.

Cycling and pedestrian advocates have said that the study shows that state leaders are finally serious about developing amenities for non-motorized travel. Past efforts to get the DOT to vet the concept were given less consideration because the engineering challenges of routing the path past major intersecting roads and waterways such as the Saugatuck and Mianus rivers were considered too extensive based on the perceived demand.

Now, heavy automobile traffic and a younger generation of professionals interested in bicycling to work has given greater impetus to efforts to develop trails.

Preservationists who are protective of the parkway's bucolic atmosphere, particularly its forested medians, will likely keep a close eye on the DOT study.






Merritt Parkway deemed endangered by National Trust
Martin B. Cassidy, Stamford ADVOCATE
Published: 09:49 p.m., Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WESTPORT -- Careful restoration of the Merritt Parkway's park-like surroundings and architecturally diverse bridges should be focused to ensure the 70-year-old wooded thoroughfare's scenic trademarks will survive the challenges of increased traffic and development, David Brown, executive vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation said Wednesday.

At a ceremony at the Merritt's North Avenue overpass, Brown announced to the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, state legislators and other officials that the rustic aura of the 37.5-mile road had been included on the trust's 2010 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The conservancy, a parkway preservation group, nominated it for the list, said President Peter Malkin, a Greenwich resident.

The list released Wednesday also includes Hinchcliffe Stadium, a Negro League baseball stadium in Paterson, N.J., a Civil War battlefield in Virginia, and the Chamorro people's ancient settlement in the U.S. territory of Guam.

"It can be inappropriate development, or the ravages of time and weather, as we can see here," Brown said pointing out sections of crumbling and eroded concrete facing on the North Avenue bridge. "Connecticut's Merritt Parkway is a model of progressive architecture and early 20th century urban land use reform."

Necessary improvements to the parkway's historic bridges and overpasses should include the original Art Deco and French Renaissance sculptural elements and other ornamentation that give them a unique character, Brown said. The parkway's traditional greenery should also be well maintained, he said.

In its designation, the trust noted the Merritt runs through the state's most densely populated area, which has led to improvement projects that jeopardize the parkway's character.

"We urge the Department of Transportation to work to make the safety improvements and design choices that respect the important character of this place," Brown said.

State Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Marie said the designation was a reminder of the challenge of maintaining the road's traditional appearance motorists value, while incorporating modern safety revamps that are necessary.

"I think the DOT is being more receptive and responsive to adopting and maintaining context-sensitive design along the highway," Marie said. "We know the Merritt Parkway needs a lot of tender loving care and we plan to keep it that way."

Running from Exit 27 at the New York state line to Exit 53 at the Stratford-Milford town line, the limited-access parkway features 68 bridges, many still bearing unique concrete adornments designed by George Dunkelberger and erected when it opened in 1938, linking the Hutchinson River Parkway to Connecticut.

The Merritt Parkway now carries an average of 55,000 cars between Greenwich and Stamford each day, 65,700 between Stamford and New Canaan and 79,000 cars on the Stratford-Milford section.

In 1994, the DOT completed a landscaping master plan to serve as a future guideline to address maintaining a population of native trees, removing vines and other invasive species, along with mowing and other maintenance.

Malkin said he hoped the increased recognition would attract preservation-minded residents to the conservancy. The group is especially concerned about efforts to remove healthy trees, or expand the roadway's safety capacity in ways that will affect bridges or landscaping.

"The National Trust investigated and reaffirmed the historic importance of the Merritt Parkway," Malkin said. "It's an important recognition because it is a tremendous asset to the state and one that is always facing some type of challenge."

Last October, the parkway was also selected by the World Monument Fund, a Manhattan nonprofit preservation group, as a significantly endangered site because of threats to the wooded canopy that buffers the highway and the aging, one-of-a-kind bridges.

The DOT is now working on a $66.5 million federal stimulus project to improve parkway safety between Fairfield and Trumbull, which includes replacing and rehabilitating 13 bridges on that 9-mile section and widening shoulders.

The project also includes the planned removal of 300 trees along a 4-mile stretch, and an extensive replanting of maple, oak and other native trees and plants after construction is completed.

"It is not one of the more attractive parts of the Merritt Parkway at this moment, but we're confident that people are going to be pleased when the landscaping phase begins," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said.

The planned bridge overhauls will restore and repair a great majority of their original historic ornamentation, with minimal changes, he said.

"The reproduction of those bridges is being done with an exacting eye toward maintaining the historical accuracy of those structures," Nursick said.

Geoffrey Middeleer, a Wilton-based landscape architect who consults with the conservancy about DOT-proposed plans, said the state has made progress toward preserving the parkway's wooded canopy by focusing on removing invasive species and considering use of plants that will make invasives less likely to return.

"I think the designation is important because anything that can be done to draw attention to preservation on the Merritt Parkway is good news," Middeleer said of the National Trust list. "We want to maintain the tree and plant species that are natural and contribute to the intended atmosphere of the road."






Preserving the Merritt's path to the past
DAY
By TINA SUSMAN Los Angeles Times
Published 11/15/2009 12:00 AM
Updated 11/15/2009 01:52 AM

The narrow lanes weave through the forest, past timber guardrails, low-slung bridges with stone facades and trees whose crimson leaves glisten in the fall sun.

But take a closer look. Those log guardrails hide steel reinforcements. And some of the charming bridges have been swapped out for modern, sharp-edged models. On second thought, don't take a closer look; you might find yourself wrapped around one of those magnificent trees.

The Merritt Parkway, known to many Americans as a speed trap for David Letterman, has coursed for 69 years through southwestern Connecticut, linking what are now some of its toniest suburbs to New York. But after being added in October to the World Monument Fund's list of most endangered sites, the four-lane, 37.5-mile road is enjoying a newfound status - alongside such treasures as the tombs of Egypt, France's chateaux and Machu Picchu in Peru.

That should come as no surprise, say lovers of the Merritt and other U.S. parkways, such as the Arroyo Seco Parkway north of downtown Los Angeles; the George Washington Memorial Parkway that loops through Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.; and the Beartooth Highway in Montana and Wyoming.

"They are as intentionally designed as the gardens of Versailles. They just happen to be roadways," said Amy Freitag of the World Monuments Fund, which sorted through 195 nominations before settling on 93 sites for its 2010 list.

By being on the list, the Merritt probably will receive even more attention from preservationists, which could translate to more funding to protect it. Recognition of the Merritt's aesthetic qualities also could help preservationists who are at odds with federal highway officials seeking to upgrade other parkways.

"It gives us a chance to remind people that these parkways exist all across the country. They really are a special, special thing that America produced in the 20th century," Freitag said of the roadways, which were designed for leisurely motoring in an era when cars, and life, moved at a far slower pace.

In addition to dozens of Art Deco bridges, the Merritt is cherished for the thick woods that grow along the roadside and the trees that dot its median. Arching branches form a leafy canopy over sections of the road. Deer nibble on grass along the narrow shoulders.

"When I was a kid, we'd come down this beautiful, beautiful roadway. You'd enter it and, all of a sudden, there would be flowers growing alongside of the road and everyone in the car would be calmer," said John B. Lindquist, 70, of Stratford. "Even my brother and I would fight less in the back seat."

But rarely do the views of parkway preservationists mesh with those demanding adherence to modern safety guidelines - be they in suburban Connecticut or the wilds of the West, where the Beartooth Highway travels. Where federal officials see higher guard walls as protection for drivers skirting rivers, preservationists see them as blocking views. Where federal officials see wider shoulders and lanes as safeguards against hitting trees, preservationists see them as destructive to the forest.

"Those trees might be a historic part of the roadway, but they are in an area where, by today's standards, they should not be," said Gloria Scott of the California Department of Transportation, which has struggled to keep the historic character of the 8.2-mile Arroyo Seco Parkway. In 2002, that stretch of California Highway 110 was designated a National Scenic Byway to bolster preservationist efforts.

But parkways that were designed for recreational driving nowadays are used by commuters living in the suburbs. They want to get to work or home quickly - as Letterman, who has used his nightly monologue to joke about his Merritt Parkway speeding tickets, can attest. Accidents happen, sparking demands for engineering changes.

In the 1990s, a series of fatal head-on collisions prompted calls to alter the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which meanders for 25 miles along the woodsy shoreline of the Potomac River. Federal highway officials directed that barriers be installed where the median was less than 8 feet wide. Dottie Marshall, the National Park Service's superintendent for the memorial parkway, said that officials didn't want glaring metal to disturb the scenery, so they opted for steel beams prefabricated to look old and rusty - the highway equivalent of distressed jeans.

"When that guard rail was installed, for about 30 to 45 days I spent all day long on the phone taking calls from people complaining about it: that we had destroyed the character (of the road) ... that people should change their behavior and drive slower," Marshall said.

Nancy Savin, a member of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, said of historic roadways that "to widen (a) highway and destroy it is not the answer."

What is needed, she said, is increased use of public transportation.

When the parkway was built, it boasted 69 bridges - no two the same. At least three have been replaced, and several with more modern designs have been added. The Monuments Fund warned that more bridges could be affected if lanes were widened, shoulders added or other changes made. A nearly $67-million safety and rehabilitation project is due to get under way before the end of the year.

"It's not changing the footprint or the look of the bridges," said Kevin Nursick of Connecticut's Department of Transportation, adding that every project on the Merritt, right down to tree removal, must be vetted by preservationists. "We do everything we can to ensure the work we're doing is sensitive to the parkway. About the only thing we don't discuss with stakeholders is how to mow the grass."

On the Merritt, Nursick said, the state does all it can to please preservationists. But given the area's increased traffic, change is inevitable.

"If it was exactly the same as it was when it was built, it wouldn't be very safe," he said. "But given the changes that have taken place in this state, in this country, in this world, the Merritt Parkway essentially remains the same."


WORLD MONUMENTS FUND
Merritt Parkway Named Endangered Monument

YAHOO
Staff and Wire Reports
October 7, 2009

The Merritt Parkway in southwestern Connecticut is among 93 cultural heritage sites worldwide singled out by a preservation group as needing protection.

A list released Tuesday by the World Monuments Fund puts the parkway in the company of the ancient ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru, Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona, the remote monastery Phajoding in Bhutan, and dozens of other sites in 47 countries.

The parkway was nominated by the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, which works for the roadway's preservation.

"We're just thrilled to have it be listed," said Jill Smyth, executive director of the conservancy. She said the designation will help promote the need to preserve the artwork on the parkway's nearly 70 bridges as well as the scenic landscaping.

"There's always that fine balance between preservation and incorporating what [state transportation officials] believe is needed for a safe, modern design for a highway," Smyth said.

In 1991, the 37.5-mile parkway was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Material released with the fund's announcement touted the parkway's native flora and winding route as reflecting the state's natural beauty, and the craftsmanship of bridge designs ranging "from French Renaissance and neoclassic to art deco and rustic." The fund said that these attributes "may be at risk due to necessary infrastructure work required to maintain the Merritt as a major thoroughfare."

The fund said two sites in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 and the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, face continuing challenges following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the area in 2005. Other U.S. sites on the watch list include architect Frank Lloyd Wright's home Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz.

An international panel of heritage preservation experts considered the 195 nominations for this year's World Monuments Fund list, said Amy Freitag, the fund's U.S. program director. The New York-based fund issues its watch list every two years.

•An Associated Press report was included in this story.

Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant


Merritt heads to Court:  U.S. District Court set to hear motions next week in the lawsuit filed by preservationists.
By ROBERT KOCH, Hour Staff Writer
August 27, 2005

NORWALK -- Next week may mark the first juncture in a legal bid to halt the state's $98 million overhaul of the Route 7-Merritt Parkway interchange. On Thursday, U.S. District Court in New Haven is scheduled to hear motions by the Merritt Parkway Conservancy and other preservation groups aimed ultimately at forcing the state to downsize its long-planned overhaul that began last spring.

The groups sued the state Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration in early June, barely a month after the state signed a $34 million construction contract with O&G Industries launching Phase One. That portion entails rebuilding the Main Avenue interchange and Glover Avenue bridge. Thursday's scheduled hearing before Judge Mark Kravitz addresses a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction filed June 20 by the plaintiffs, who hope to save the Main Avenue bridge. The hearing had been set for Aug. 1.

"The Connecticut DOT agreed to refrain from any further dismantling of the Main Avenue bridge until Sept. 1," said Andrea Ferster, attorney for the preservation groups. "Construction of the project is proceeding, and if they demolish a historic bridge prior to the adjudication of the case ... that will result in irreparable damage to the Merritt Parkway."

In May, construction crews began removing trees along the parkway near Main Avenue. Since then, work has proceeded as possible, given the pending lawsuit, according to Chris Cooper, a DOT spokesman. Cooper said the state has voluntarily restricted work to the ramp southbound from the parkway to Main Avenue, and preparation work at the Glover Avenue bridge.

"We agreed to not do any work on any of the elements that could be considered by the plaintiffs to be historically sensitive," Cooper said. "Essentially, we're expecting to have a better sense of our direction after that Sept. 1 hearing. We have not lost too much on the timetable, because there are other activities we could move forward on. Clearly Sept. 1 is an important date for the project."

Business leaders and elected officials, including Mayor Alex Knopp, consider the interchange project critical to retaining jobs and industry, reducing traffic accidents on Main Avenue, and making the Route 7 Connector-Merritt Parkway interchange immediately west of Main Avenue accessible to cars from all directions.

The Parkway Conservancy, Norwalk Land Trust, National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the state's design is too big and will destroy the historic character of the parkway

"They refused to consider any other alternatives on their own, and they refused to consider the alternatives that the conservancy submitted," said Peter Malkin, Parkway Conservancy co-chairman. Malkin said the Sierra Club and the Connecticut Historical Society have joined as co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The hearing is scheduled for Thursday at 9 a.m. at U.S. District Court in New Haven, 141 Church St.


Route 7-Merritt plan meeting set
April 5, 2005 CT POST:
By ROB VARNON rvarnon@ctpost.com

The state Department of Transportation will hold an informational meeting today at Norwalk City Hall to discuss the design of a project that would fully connect the Merritt Parkway and the Route 7 expressway.

The DOT's plan to use ramps to connect the roads in Norwalk has drawn sharp criticism from the Merritt Parkway Conservancy and other opponents who say this is really an attempt to revive the "Super 7" project — the name given to the plan to connect Norwalk and Danbury with an expressway.

But that project was killed in the early 1990s and the current Route 7 expressway is less than six miles long, running from Interstate 95 in Norwalk to the edge of Wilton, just north of the Merritt.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, 125 East Ave.

No one can be sure how many people could be directly served by this project, but U.S. Census Bureau data from 2000 indicated that more than 43,000 people who worked in the Norwalk-Stamford region lived north and east   of the interchange project. That included more than 30,000 people in the Bridgeport area and about 4,642 in the Naugatuck Valley, according to the bureau.

The DOT and Gov. M. Jodi Rell emphatically said last week that the state does not have any intention of resurrecting the Super 7 plan. DOT Deputy Commissioner Carl Bard said Friday that this project will simply finish the connection between the roads.

The DOT and the conservancy agree that the connection should be improved, mainly because
drivers heading south on the Merritt from municipalities north of Norwalk can't access the expressway to get to I-95; instead, they must use Norwalk city streets to do so.

But Laurie Heiss, the conservancy's executive director, said Friday that it doesn't make sense to link the southbound Merritt with the northbound Route 7 expressway because it ends less than two miles north of the parkway. People heading to Danbury then must take a right onto Grist Mill Road, then a left onto the other   Route 7, which is a two-lane road. She noted that people wishing to head north toward Danbury from the Bridgeport area usually take Route 33, which can be accessed from the Merritt a few miles northeast of the expressway interchange.

The conservancy is offering two designs for the project, which it says will cost less and take less time to build. The plans eliminate several of the ramps in favor of traffic circles.

The mayor of Norwalk, the Business Council of Fairfield County (SACIA), the Norwalk Chamber of Commerce and the South Western Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization support the DOT's plan. The MPO is made up of the chief elected officials of the towns surrounding Stamford and Norwalk.



Forging A Trail In Connecticut: Not Always Easy (from 2004 RPA Regional Assembly on-line report)

Millions of drivers have experienced the magnificence of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, arguably the f irst parkway-style highway in the country, but only a fortunate few have traveled its wooded environs on f oot or bicycle.

Regional Plan Association would like to change that and has been advocating since the early 1990s f or the construction of a path along the
150-foot right-of -way that planners reserved since the highway opened in 1934.  But the Merritt trail is not a new idea. According to several historical documents and remarks by Thayer Chase, the landscape architect of the parkway, it is clear that a Merritt trail system was considered when the parkway was designed. In Greenwich, in fact, a bridle path was partially constructed, and it is still in use today.

The right-of-way's 150-foot width is filled with plantings, natural rock outcroppings and meandering streams. Unique in character, it is easy to understand why the original designers contemplated a path along its entire 37.5-mile length. But, alas, uninspired minds prevailed and the land was eventually set aside for additional lanes instead. So it was not until 1990 that the door reopened for a greenway trail, when Emil Frankel, who was then commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, declared the right-of-way off limits for highway expansion.

Because of dense development and the north-south ridges that mark the Connecticut topography, the Merritt is the only logical place to site an off -road trail through Fairfield County.  And in 1994, RPA's Merritt Parkway Trail Study provided the documentation that demonstrated the feasibility of the trail. The study generated interest f rom several communities, but the concept never really drew the broad consensus that was needed to get the trail out of concept and into design.

Because the trail would pass through seven municipalities, it was felt it could best be achieved incrementally, by building segments in areas with strong local support and, over time, connecting them. So while RPA continued to keep the project in the public eye through news articles, civic
meetings and other outreach eff orts, the project focus was on identifying a community willing to build that first essential segment.

In early 2000, the project took a giant leap forward when the City of Stamford took an interest in the proposed path. The mayor and planning department made an innovative proposal for a citywide trail system that was a perfect fit for the Merritt trail. The following March, with Stamford's backing and funding from the Alex G. Nason Foundation, RPA released a study, "The Merritt Parkway Trail Demonstration Project." Prepared by Milone & MacBroom, Inc., the study covers an approximately 1-mile segment between High Ridge Road and Newfield Avenue. It was well received, generated good press coverage and increased public support for the trail.

Building on that broad-based support, RPA convened the Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance in October of 2001. The Alliance is comprised of corporations, chambers of commerce, municipal organizations, schools, environmental organizations, land trusts, other trail organizations, clubs,
bicycle shops, and many individuals.

A great idea with broad support doesn't always translate into immediate construction, however.  The DOT has publicly stated that they will not add more lanes, but they may not have given up on using that right of way for more lanes some day. In approaching the DOT, RPA and the Stamford mayor requested permission to construct the first 1-mile section of the trail described in "The Merritt Parkway Trail Demonstration Project." The request to the DOT fell on deaf ears, with responses stating that the department had denied "various past requests" to use the right-of-way. But a breakthrough came in the summer of 2003, when the state DOT modified its position.

In response to a supportive letter from Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, the DOT again expressed safety and aesthetic concerns but then said that it would "initiate discussions" with the Connecticut Historic Commission, the Connecticut Trust f or Historic Preservation, the Merritt Parkway Advisory Committee, the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, local officials, and others, "to evaluate the desirability and f easibility of a Merritt Parkway Trail."

The DOT also said that that it wanted to review and analyze the trail system "as part of a contiguous Merritt Parkway trail."  With that news in hand, RPA and the MPTA has embarked on an eff ort to inform the elected off icials and other organizations about the benefits of such a trail throughout the eight cities and towns through which the Parkway passes, as well as towns nearby. Nearly all Chief Elected Officials along the corridor have endorsed the project, and there is optimism that support along the entire length of the parkway, f rom the New York State line to the Housatonic River can be received from municipalities, neighbors and other stakeholders.

Seventy years after the Merritt opened, there is reason to be optimistic that the trail will become a reality. And the timing couldnβt be better, with the U.S. Surgeon General's off ice now reporting that more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Making our communities
pedestrian-and bicycle-friendly will encourage citizens to get out of their cars and onto their feet and provide safe alternate forms of transportation and healthy exercise for everyone. A trail will encourage bicycling and walking between residential, commercial and recreation areas,
employment centers, shopping, universities and schools, all of which are located along the Merritt Parkway.

--John Atkin, Connecticut director, RPA



A view of the right-of-way

Event to preview proposed Merritt bike path

By Mark Ginocchio
Stamford ADVOCATE Staff Writer
October 22, 2004
 

Advocates of a 37.5-mile Merritt Parkway bike and pedestrian trail from Greenwich to Stratford hope a promotional event Sunday will garner more support for their cause.

The Merritt Parkway Trail Alliance and the Regional Plan Association will hold Merritt Trail Day 2004 from noon to 5 p.m. at the Italian Center in Stamford. It will include guided walks of a proposed demonstration leg of the trail and other activities.

If all goes well, the event will give the proposal more momentum, said Linda Hoza, project manager for the Regional Plan Association, a tri-state organization overseeing planning for the trail.

"We're building a strong grassroots support for the trail," Hoza said. "We've spoken to mayors and first selectmen, and most of them support it."

The state Department of Transportation, which has to grant permission before the alliance can build a demonstration leg between High Ridge Road and Newfield Avenue in Stamford, has stalled the project to research its practicality.

"Before pursuing something, we need to know if the consensus is there and if it's strong enough," said Carmine Trotta, assistant planning director for the state. "There are still a lot of issues that need to be identified."

Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy said the support is there.

"It's an idea that will grow and grow and some people come to understand what it's about," Malloy said. "We have the road systems that give this the potential."

But the DOT hasn't budged.

The DOT has not set a deadline for a ruling and, until then, "we are stuck at a dead end," Hoza said.

Not all officials support the parkway trail.

Fairfield First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said the town is committed to preserving open space and opposes a new trail in Fairfield.

"The impact it would have on open space and neighboring residences would be enormous," Flatto said.

He said he does not oppose the demonstration leg in Stamford and favors expanding some existing trails in Fairfield, but Flatto said he did not want to add construction on the parkway.

The Merritt Parkway Conservancy, a group that wants to preserve the historical nature of the parkway, supports the alliance's concept but opposes anything that would damage the parkway's character, Executive Director Laurie Heiss said.

Hoza said the path could provide traffic relief by giving commuters an option to bike or walk instead of driving. It also would get people to better experience the parkway, Hoza said.

About $500,000 is needed to build the demonstration leg, Hoza said. The project would be financed by state and federal grants and private donations.