MDC Property Should Remain Open for Everyone to Enjoy

July 21, 2010

Last Tuesday, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) held a special public hearing in West Hartford to address the potential closing of its recreational areas for public use. Estimates of up to 800 people turned out to rally against the closure of the over 10,000 acres of property, which includes the reservoir in West Harford and Lake McDonough in Barkhamsted. Each year thousands of residents from all over the state come to these places to bike, run, hike and swim.

The controversy began last May when a Superior Court jury awarded $2.9 million to a Rocky Hill woman who was injured in 2002 when her bike crashed into a gate on MDC property at the West Hartford Reservoir. Since the commission was found to be liable for her injuries – even though she was riding the wrong way when the accident occurred – it has forced them to study their policy as it relates to public use of their recreational areas.

The case brings attention to a state law that provides immunity to private land owners who make their property available for recreational use. Connecticut General Statute 52-557g (b) says that “an owner of land who, either directly or indirectly, invites or permits without charge, rent, or fee any person to use the land, or part thereof, FOR RECREATIONAL PURPOSES DOES NOT THEREBY (3) ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY FOR OR INCUR LIABILITY FOR ANY INJURY TO PERSON or property caused by an act or omission of the owner.”

Being a “quasi-public” agency, the MDC does not specifically fall under this statute. But I ask you how is this any different? The MDC has opened their property to the public. Because the MDC is not entirely a “private entity,” however, it is not immune from liability even though it adheres to the very spirit of the law which is to encourage property owners to open up their property to the public for recreational purposes. That is why I wholeheartedly support the MDC’s appeal of this decision.

While I am certainly cognizant of the legal ramifications of the case, any decision to restrict the recreational use of the MDC land is more of a knee jerk reaction than anything else. After all, there was never a threat to close the property or even a public hearing held when someone was brutally shot and killed back in 1998; a horrific case much worse than this one.

Instead of threatening to close the areas we should be putting all our energy into addressing the issue. Last month, State Representative John Rigby (of Winsted) and I announced that we will be submitting legislation when the General Assembly convenes in January that will expand and clarify the Connecticut law so that agencies such as the MDC would be immune from lawsuits filed by people injured on their property. I would even go as far to say that the legislature should take this matter up in Special Session if time becomes a factor.

For over a decade the state of Connecticut has prided itself in the investment of tens of millions of dollars in open space acquisition and preservation so that residents can enjoy all the unique outdoor New England activities the state has to offer. With many people forgoing vacations and opting to stay closer to home during these difficult economic times, the state must do everything to ensure that all our recreational facilities remain open.