By Carley Dangona
WESTFIELD – Residents voiced their safety concerns regarding a lack of privacy created by the construction of Phase 2 of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail during a City Council meeting.
During the public participation portion of the council meeting on April 3, concerned citizens shared that the removal of trees in preparation of the construction of the trail along East Silver Street and Gold Street has resulted in a complete loss of privacy, especially since there is now an increase of pedestrian traffic. The residents alleged that many of those people are unsavory characters, such as the homeless, drug addicts and sex offenders, who pose a threat to their children.
In light of the testimonies, the council referred three agenda items regarding the taking of real estate for this phase of the trail to its subcommittees for review, before deciding whether to accept the requests from Mayor Daniel Knapik’s office to acquire land for the trail project under eminent domain.
“Now, whoever is up on that trail, not only can I see them, but they can see me and my children,” resident Tanya Norseth said. “This is a safety issue. We have no sense of privacy. They’re seeing what we own. They see our sheds. They see our children. We have nothing [to shield us from view].”
Norseth advised the council that she found six pages of registered sex offenders in Westfield and has seen some of them along the trail.
She also addressed the fact that construction starts at 7 a.m. with bulldozers rumbling and dump truck back up alarms beeping. Norseth said that the shaking is so bad that the walls of her home are starting to crack. She was very concerned that her neighbor, a senior undergoing cancer treatment, is unable to rest due to the construction.
Sabrina Avezzie also addressed the council. “We have no privacy. Family functions are now over in my family due to this walking trail that is 10 feet from my house,” she said.
Sabrina continued, “My son was taught not to speak to strangers. Guess what’s in my backyard now? Strangers. Many of them.” She explained that her son is now suffering from panic attacks and nightmares.
She shared a story of a homeless man that crossed the access way and approached her son while he was playing in the backyard. “Should I have to have my curtains closed the entire day for privacy? No,” Sabrina said.
Antoinette Avezzie, who has owned her home since 1978, noted that the children are no longer safe to play in the backyard and have no place to go since Cross Street Playground no longer exists.
After the public comments, the council continued with its agenda. The first three items on the list labeled “Communications from the mayor” regarded the use of $19,600 in free cash to take real estate for the rail trail by eminent domain.
Ward 1 Councilor Christopher Keefe moved for immediate consideration of the items, but withdrew the motion after at-large Councilor David Flaherty opposed the motion. Instead the items were referred to the finance and legislative and ordinance subcommittees.
“The only reason I’m opposing is because of what just happened. This is in the same neighborhood, the same block and I want to make sure we here from the public before we just go ahead and approve this,” Flaherty said.
“We don’t have any drawings in front of us. We have very concerned citizens with legitimate complaints. I think we should here from them before we vote on this,” he continued.
At-large Councilor Daniel Allie expressed his shock that the trail was so close to residences. “Most of us believed it was going to be replacing the railroad [tracks that are no longer utilized]. I think we can do a much better job of planning,” he said, adding that the removal of trees and proximity to homes should have been part of the public hearing process.
Ward 2 Councilor Ralph Figy, whose jurisdiction falls with the citizens directly affected by the issue, advised the council that he has been working with City Engineer Mark Cressotti to address the issues.
Figy said that the construction contract was written for 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., but that they are trying to minimize the noise levels prior to 8 a.m. He also stated that they are considering increasing the height of the greenery that will be planted as part of the landscaping of the trail from five to seven feet in height.