Opponents, proponents get their say concerning proposed 2.4 mile rail trail
TOWNSEND -- The Squannacook River Rail Trail Feasibility Study Committee this week presented the selectmen with a report concerning a 2.4 mile long "rail trail" to run through a section of Townsend.
Committee Chairman Stephen Meehan said the group "has been working hard to address the concerns of abutters of the proposed trail" and has "scaled down from the original proposal."
The original proposal was for a 9.5 mile rail trail, running from Hollingsworth and Vose in Groton to the Townsend/Mason, N.H., line. Of that, 6.8 miles were in Townsend.
"We now recommend that the trail extend from the Townsend/Groton line, which is Harbor Village, to Depot Road in the center of town," Meehan said.
Many Townsend residents were present at the meeting to voice their support for the project going ahead, but some voiced their disapproval.
"We bought our house for the view in the back yard, but your proposed trail would run right through it," said Elaine Martin, 74 Main Street. "The value of our house would plummet."
Meehan said in cases like Martin's, "fences or plantings could be used to help keep Martin's back yard somewhat private."
Dana King, 15 Scales Lane, said he does not believe "a majority of residents are in support of this idea."
"I think you've got 40, maybe 50 people in town that are all for this," he said. "You are wearing out the people that are against it. Now the abutters aren't showing up for the meetings, and they are not voicing their opinions.
"You guys have an answer for everything," he continued. "You will give someone a fence and they no longer will have their view. That is not a good answer."
Conservation Commissioner John Stonefield said, "I walk that trail now and it is all litter and trash. The trail in Ayer is a big mess. There is junk all over the place. As a conservation agent, my other main concern is about putting impervious surfaces in such a sensitive area."
Meehan told Stonefield that part of the maintenance for a rail trail "is keeping the area litter free."
"It's something we can get the Boy Scouts involved with," he said.
Emily Norton, president of the Friends of Willard Brook, said her group has been involved with cleanups of other trails, "and we have had many volunteers each time."
James Clish, 47 West Elm Street, asked about the town's liability with a trail passing through it.
"My un-expert opinion is the town would be liable for anyone getting hurt on the trail," Meehan said.
"I don't think anyone has a clear line of liability yet," said Selectman Peter Collins.
Auguste "Herk" Fortin, 411 Main Street, is all in favor of a trail. "I am an abutter," he said. "When I go to Florida and go on the Seminole Trail with my granddaughter and see the joggers, mothers with children and bike riders it [is] such a nice thing. It's for people and families that want to be outside in safety. I don't mind seeing people on snowmobiles having fun. It is an asset for all families."
"Rail trails are also good for mobility impaired," said Norton. "It gives them a chance to enjoy nature, too."
Ward Clark, 18 School Street, said he likes to ride his bicycle in Townsend. "I am in favor of a trail," he said. "Riding my bike down Route 119 is terrifying. It would be wonderful to have a safe way to get to Harbor Mall."
"The time is right for a rail trail," said Kenneth Gerken, 403 Main Street. "From what I've read, property values go up about 5 percent with trails."
King said, "We have Pearl Brook and Willard Brook, so we do have trails in town. There are trails in Groton, so there are those possibilities. I think this would be an inconvenience to all abutters."
"I am dedicated to getting full research," said Dr. Julius Melbin, 171 North End Road. "I see the pros and cons, and have seen many reports on the issue. I don't put much faith in reports. We need the complete information to make an informed decision. We need to gather the information, so I would like to get a draft lease to see what, if any clauses are in there. Then we can make an informed decision if we go forward or not."
Meehan asked the selectmen to request a draft lease from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority -- who owns the railroad track -- so the committee can look for grant money and continue to get the project to fruition.
"I don't propose to have all the answers to all of the concerns, but with a draft lease, we can further look into things," he said.
Selectman Robert Plamondon said he has read the report, "cover to cover."
"I think both sides have excellent points, and I conditionally support it," he said. "One of my concerns is soil contamination. There were diesel engines going over those tracks for years, and we don't know what is under there. I would like to see some soil testing done.
"I would be in favor of a draft lease," he continued. "It doesn't cost the town anything and would allow for information and input."
Selectman Peter Collins said, "I appreciate the arguments on both sides and am impressed with the passion of everyone. I have a difficult time disputing any argument from Dr. Melbin.
"I have walked that rail-bed since I was five years old," he said. "I know with more people, there will be more litter. The police are going to have to patrol it, they will need ingress and egress. There are wetland issues, we will be displacing wildlife. We used to watch that Squannacook area like hawks, now you want to put a trail there.
"With the property values, we can make the statistics lie either way," he continued. "I find it intriguing that we wouldn't want to go to one of our state forests, which is all trees, paths and gravel and put a trail through there. I think it's because we don't want to screw with the state."
Selectmen Chairman Daniel Murphy said he wants more information on parking for the trail before he requests the draft lease.
"Waiting for a draft lease won't hold you up from getting more information from some of the abutters, and finding out more about parking issues, and liability," he said.
Plamondon said he would feel better "with more information from our legal counsel before I make a motion to get the draft lease."
"We need to know what the ramifications to the town will be," he said.
The board decided to take no action on Meehan's request until further information becomes available.