Shelton cuts off access to popular Stratford swimming hole

SHELTON — People are going to find it more difficult to visit the Far Mill River Park “swimming hole” — welcome news to residents along Manhasset Trail.

The city recently completed work fencing off the former Pearl Bach property that straddles the city’s Stratford border and installing no trespassing signs to prevent people from accessing the swimming hole — which is in Stratford — from the Shelton side.

The park, promoted on the Stratford city website, has become a destination point for people from as far away as New York, officials said.

“We believe this will be a major enhancement to the area that will eliminate dumping on the site, provide a long-awaited beautification, create a safe use of the site and restore peace and tranquility to the neighborhood,” Board of Aldermen President John Anglace Jr. said about the new fence.

“This is a great example of multiple departments in the city coming together to solve a problem,” Police Lt. Robert Kozlowsky said, adding that the true test of the fence will begin next weekend — the park becomes a popular hangout from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

The property, located off Route 110 and Main Street in Stratford, has three access points, two of which are located on the Shelton side. One is through city-owned land — known as the Pearl Bach property — on Manhasset Trail, the other from 865 River Road near the Far Mill River bridge adjacent to a medical office building and along a path that leads to the swimming hole.

The third entrance is on the Stratford side on Pine Tree Lane. There are only two or three parking spaces and a sign indicating open space and a path that leads to the water.

Anglace said Shelton residents in that area have complained for years about the parking and debris left behind by people visiting the area.

But the biggest issue, he said, has been the inability of either Shelton or Stratford to provide emergency services if needed because access to the site ranges from difficult to nearly impossible.

“This has been a huge liability,” Anglace said.

To try to control access, Shelton staff cleared an area parallel to Manhasset Trail along the length of the property. Boulders were moved along the roadside to prevent parking in the flat area, and an eight-foot-high fence, with vehicular gate, was installed at a cost of $15,100 which comes from the Pine Rock Improvement Fund.

City Conservation Agent Teresa Gallagher coordinated the improvement efforts.

“It has been a long-standing challenge to find a solution that works,” Conservation Commission Chair Tom Harbinson said.

Gallagher said Stratford purchased the parkland from the BHC water company in the 1960s and has always described it as a quiet place to enjoy nature.

“It was never intended to be a major park, and Stratford did not have good parking or public access for it,” Gallagher said, “but people learned that they could cut through the tiny Pearl Bach property — as residents of Pine Rock Park had been doing for decades — and that information was increasingly shared online. Parking became a problem on the narrow roads.”

"Solutions have been suggested and implemented, some with more success than others,” Harbinson said. “This fence is the latest attempt at correcting the issues for the location. We believe it will enhance the neighborhood.”

Far Mill River Park had become an Internet sensation for people, and Gallagher said interest only escalated during the pandemic.

“I started getting calls from neighbors and verified that two new rogue trails had been cut through the Pearl Bach property leading steeply down to the river, heavily used, and the property was full of litter,” Gallagher said.

That was when Anglace learned that money was available through the Pine Rock Improvement Fund to cover the cost of the fencing, with public works handling the installation and earth moving and police installing the no trespassing signs.

Anglace said public works prepared the site, cutting trees, removing brush, moving the boulders and adding drainage; the Shelton Police Department has spent many man hours controlling area parking and now posting the new signs. Kozlowsky said officers will continue to patrol the area, and now have the ability to ticket and tow cars left along the road.

Harbinson said the Conservation Commission has been aware of the challenges on the Pearl Bach property, especially some of the conduct by some visitors, the litter and noise and property trampling, for several years.

One of the greatest challenges for police enforcement, Harbinson said, is that the city-owned open space is a narrow swath of land alongside Manhassett Trail.

“As you go down the wooded slope toward the Far Mill River, you are moving off of this parcel owned by the City of Shelton, and upon a parcel of land owned by the Town of Stratford, though the municipal border is the Far Mill River,” Harbinson said. “Where the swimming and congregating occurs is within the City of Shelton, but it is on property owned by the Town of Stratford. Visitors have been accessing the Stratford owned parcel via the Shelton-owned parcel.”

“I do think it is unfortunate that there is not a legal way for people to access Far Mill River Park unless you have a Stratford sticker on your car,” Gallagher said. “This location was used by fishermen and kayakers for many years. But it’s a Town of Stratford park, and they are the ones who determine how it is managed.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com