By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Proponents of extending a paved public trail along Paugus Bay are raising money and preparing plans for city approval, while residents of two gated communities along the proposed path are gearing up for a potential legal fight to stop the project.
The 10-foot-wide Winnisquam-Opechee-Winnipesaukee (WOW) Trail now runs from the Belmont town line to Elm Street in the Lakeport area of Laconia.
Backers say the trail has been popular with locals and tourists alike, is good for business and boosts property values. Police say the path hasn't caused the kind of problems some had feared.
The proposed 5-mile extension would extend the existing path to Weirs Beach along a railroad right of way that skirts the bay and the private communities of Long Bay and South Down Shores.
Long Bay's homeowners' association recently emailed a PowerPoint presentation to residents saying that, if the path is built, they will lose privacy to thousands of pedestrians and bicyclists.
"Users will see our amenities (beaches, pool, bocce & tennis court, chairs, & bathrooms) and want to use them," the document stated. "Trespass is the entry level crime that leads to more serious misdemeanors and felonies. Our security costs will increase as security teams deal with trespassers."
It also stated there would be a greater chance for vandalism and burglaries and that property values could go down.
Dick Bordwell, president of the Long Bay association, said residents' access to the bay could be disrupted by fences that would be needed along the trail to keep people off the railroad tracks, which are used by a scenic rail line during the tourist months.
"In general, most people are not in opposition to the trail itself, but are just in opposition to the fact that the intention is to bring it right through our community and introduce a large contingent of people to a private community," Bordwell said.
"About 150,000 people will use the trail on an annual basis," he said. "Long Bay and South Down combined are in an area of 2,400 people. This would destroy any form or fashion of privacy for this community."
Bordwell said people purchased their homes in the area with an expectation of privacy.
Backers of the trail extension should try to find an alternate route, and residents are willing to fight the project in court if they have to, he said.
Bruce Miller, president of the South Down Shores association, said concerns over crime are real.
He pointed to a public records request made to the Laconia Police Department. The report showed 131 police calls over six years along the existing trail, including for vandalism, public intoxication and fighting.
The existing stretch of trail goes through a largely urban zone, while the proposed extension would be in a more lightly populated, residential area.
Laconia Police Chief Matt Canfield, who frequently runs on the WOW trail, said the occasional public intoxication or vandalism call may happen near the trail, as is true anywhere in an urban area.
Fewer problems would be expected on the extension, he said.
"When you get up that far, that's quite a haul for someone to walk up to do what, trespass?" he said. "I wouldn't think you'd see a problem. I wouldn't be overly concerned."
Canfield said that before the existing WOW trail was built, people said it would lead to crime.
"There were a lot of concerns that it would be a conduit for crimes like burglaries," he said. "We really haven't seen that."
Allan Beetle, who owns Patrick's Pub, is the foremost proponent of the trail extension and is involved with a nonprofit organization that supports the project. He said the group expects to net $35,000 to $40,000 in an annual sweepstakes ball it will hold Saturday at Gunstock Mountain Resort.
That money, together with about $150,000 the group has already raised, would serve as seed money for the trail extension. Government grants would largely support the project, which could cost as much as $4 million.
Engineering plans are being compiled and it could be a few months before a proposal is ready to submit to the city.
Beetle said people who live near such trails often like to use them and end up being their biggest supporters.
A 2012 economic impact analysis by the Belknap County Economic Development Council for a completed WOW Trail estimates net new visitor spending at $1.78 million annually. The analysis also stated that properties close to trails tend to see a positive impact on property values.
Beetle said the railroad right of way, which offers unobstructed views of the bay, is the best place to put the trail. Across the country, no-longer-used or little-used railroad corridors have been used for biking, walking and running trails and can be developed without the need of purchasing private land.
He said trail users are a positive, not a negative, for a community.
"These are the types of people you want coming by your property," Beetle said. "They are the type to call police if they saw a problem. They pick up trash and say 'Hello' when they pass by."