The road to change: Why some residents of Avon refuse to take it

Two traf­fic signs stand by Old Farms Road in Avon, Con­necti­cut, on Feb. 8, 2023. While the road has been deemed unsafe by town offi­cials, some locals argue its inte­gral role in shap­ing the town’s rur­al char­ac­ter, as well as its sen­ti­men­tal val­ue. (Esther Ju/UConn Journalism)

By Esther Ju | UConn Jour­nal­ism
May 5, 2023

AVON, Conn. — Tucked with­in stretch­es of woods, a cen­tu­ry-old path­way lays amid spindly oaks and tow­er­ing white pines. A bright yel­low sign is vis­i­ble beside the green, bear­ing a black squig­gle that sig­ni­fies what’s coming. 

A gen­tle veer to the left is imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed by one to the right. And then to the left again. Then to the right. Fur­ther down, met­al guardrails line a bridge where the path hangs over a clear brook. Shal­low water bathes large stones that dot the bottom.

For years, res­i­dents have trav­eled down Old Farms Road, observ­ing its bucol­ic sur­round­ings as they pass through. The route sym­bol­izes the rur­al lifestyle fos­tered by a small town, left vir­tu­al­ly unchanged since its ori­gins as a dirt road. Now, loom­ing plans to recon­struct Old Farms Road have sparked oppo­si­tion from some town dwellers, who fear the loss of its rus­tic charm and, most of all, the era­sure of a cher­ished place.

I love that road. I dri­ve it every sin­gle day, like any­body around here who lives in that region or on that road — and we love it,” said Bob Lob­ley, who’s lived on Old Farms since 1992. He lat­er rem­i­nisced about his rel­a­tives’ reac­tions: “And when my fam­i­ly comes out to vis­it, my nephews would say, ‘We’re going to the for­est. Uncle Bob lives in the forest.’”

Fol­low­ing a close vote last Decem­ber, Avon res­i­dents approved to allo­cate near­ly $5.5 mil­lion in state grants toward the road’s recon­struc­tion. A round­about, cross­walk and mul­ti-use trail are small addi­tions com­pared to the project’s main adjust­ment: relo­cat­ing the road 180 feet to the west by build­ing a new pas­sage and aban­don­ing the exist­ing roadway.

Plans for redesign have been in the works since 1969, said town engi­neer Lar­ry Bar­il. How­ev­er, a decades-long delay was the result of a com­pli­cat­ed process. While many dif­fer­ent align­ments were con­sid­ered, each step required an envi­ron­men­tal review, some com­po­nent of pub­lic infor­ma­tion and, more impor­tant­ly, fund­ing, Bar­il said. With the state will­ing to pay for the project, the town saw a suit­able chance for the path to be revamped.

The beau­ty of Old Farms stems from its orig­i­nal pur­pose as a coun­try back­road, but it was nev­er built to car­ry vehi­cles, Bar­il said. The road’s struc­ture doesn’t meet mod­ern safe­ty stan­dards, he added, nor does it offer much room for mul­ti­ple cars to cruise by.

The blue­print for the Old Farms Road project from the Avon town engineer’s office. Con­struc­tion will take at least a year to begin and will like­ly take 18 months to com­plete. (Esther Ju/UConn Journalism)

Police records indi­cate that approx­i­mate­ly 281 report­ed crash­es occurred on Old Farms Road from Jan. 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2022. The last fatal motor vehi­cle acci­dent hap­pened in 2011. Accord­ing to Offi­cer Jason Rear­don from the Avon Police Depart­ment, most acci­dents tend to result in prop­er­ty dam­age, which com­prise minor dam­age to vehi­cles and minor injuries.

Lob­ley has wit­nessed a hand­ful of more seri­ous col­li­sions from his kitchen win­dow, yet he oppos­es the project whole­heart­ed­ly. His house is perched adja­cent to where Old Farms inter­sects with Coun­try Club Road, an awk­ward sec­tion that bends into a sharp curve. Last fall, he watched four teenage boys — stu­dents from the neigh­bor­ing Avon Old Farms School — car­ried out on body­boards after fail­ing to nego­ti­ate the curve. Two sum­mers ago, a young man made the same mis­take, ram­ming his vehi­cle into a near­by tele­phone pole. 

The Old Farms res­i­dent agrees that the road calls for safe­ty con­cerns, but he also believes that the project does not address the actu­al prob­lem area: right by his front yard. Lobley’s neigh­bor­hood is locat­ed out of the scope for recon­struc­tion, where he says many of the worst crash­es occur.

It’ll be at least a year before con­struc­tion begins, said Bar­il. The cur­rent route will remain acces­si­ble while the new road­way is built. Still, res­i­dents like David Kotler and Joseph Gilber­ti face the bit­ter real­i­ty that their time spent dri­ving along Old Farms — the exist­ing path hid­den among tall trees — is numbered.

Kotler has enjoyed his dri­ve to work for 16 years, mean­der­ing through nar­row bridges and spot­ting wildlife every morning.

It’s a very non-stress­ful com­mute,” he said. “Even when the guy in front of me is going slow­er than I’d like him to, it’s just so peaceful.”

Gilberti’s fond­ness for the road derives from mem­o­ries of pick­ing up his grand­chil­dren from West Hart­ford, “wind­ing and singing” en route back home. Old Farms was the sole fac­tor that drew his fam­i­ly to Avon in the 1980s. When they arrived, they looked for­ward to a future of scenic dri­ves. Soon, the road itself will become part of the past.

It’s not only us and our inter­ests,” Gilber­ti said, voic­ing his objec­tion to the project. “But it’s gen­er­a­tions. This is [for] future generations.”

Oth­ers see it differently.

Once this project is com­plet­ed, in 10 years peo­ple won’t even remem­ber,” Offi­cer Rear­don said. “They’ll just forget.”