By RICK GREEN, THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Opponents of extending the WOW Trail through a state rail corridor near two private gated communities are premature in filing a lawsuit over the matter, an assistant attorney general said Friday.
At issue is the third phase of the Winnisquam-Opechee-Winnipesaukee Trail. The 5-mile extension would go through a Department of Transportation right of way.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead said in a motion filed in Belknap County Superior Court that the plaintiffs' claims “are not presently ripe for review.”
No plans have been received or approved for the trail extension, although backers of the public path have said they intended to formalize a proposal this summer.
“The State has not entered into an agreement permitting any entity, including the City of Laconia, to construct Phase III of the WOW trail nor has it approved final design plans for the project,” he stated. “The parties are exploring options to stay this matter to avoid unnecessary litigation at this time.”
Robert Carey, an attorney representing the plaintiff, South Down Recreation Association, said the lawsuit contains viable legal claims.
“We'll explore with the DOT what the appropriate way is to litigate those claims so we economize the court's resources, our resources and the DOT's resources,” he said.
One possibility might be withdrawing the lawsuit and refiling it later.
Friday was the deadline for the state to file an answer to the lawsuit. The court has granted the state's request for 30 additional days to “evaluate the feasibility of staying this case or taking other alternative action.”
Gretchen Gandini, spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization behind the trail, said the lawsuit was premature.
“For example, we hadn’t even made an application to the planning board yet, but they decided to pre-emptively sue the state to prevent the public from using this publicly owned land,” she said. “We as a WOW Trail group remain as committed as ever to moving forward and finding resolution because, while their lawsuit might not be ripe for litigation, the City of Laconia and the Weirs in particular are ripe for redevelopment. We’ve got good economic impact data telling us that transforming this underutilized state-owned land into a public recreation space linking Meredith, Weirs Beach, Lakeport and downtown Laconia makes good economic sense and we as a nonprofit group will continue to work with others to make this happen.”
The lawsuit could help determine the success or failure of a 30-year-old vision of placing a trail along the bay.
Some residents fear the trail would cause them to lose privacy. They also worry that some trail users might trespass or engage in crime. Another concern is that trail fencing would disrupt residents' access to the bay.
“The proposed trail would impede residents' access to their waterfront property, obstruct their views of the bay and permanently alter the South Down and Long Bay communities in other harmful ways,” the lawsuit states. “The proposed trail cannot be built without permission from the Department of Transportation. The petitioners bring this action to prevent the DOT from permitting a recreational trail to be built through the South Down and Long Bay communities.”
The railroad tracks are used by a scenic train in the tourist season. If a trail were to be put in the right of way, a fence would be needed to separate the path from the tracks.
“The fencing required by DOT for recreational trails along active railroad lines would obstruct views of the waterfront from the South Down and Long Bay Communities,” the lawsuit states. The fencing would also impede access of the residents to their beach, docks and boat slips, the suit states.
The 10-foot-wide trail now runs from the Belmont town line to Elm Street in the Lakeport area of Laconia. In addition to the proposed extension to Weirs Beach, proponents hope to ultimately build a section that would take it all the way in to Meredith.