WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Spruces Land Use Committee recently marked progress in converting the Main Street parcel into a public amenity while also noting the need for patience as any modifications undergo review from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It was a FEMA grant that facilitated the town's acquisition of the former mobile home park property after flooding from Tropical Storm Irene made the park untenable.
One condition of the grant was that the former mobile home park be returned to a natural state and used as a flood plain for the nearby Hoosic River.
Working within the constraints of what is allowed on the site, the town has been able to make modifications to make the acreage friendlier for hikers, bird-watchers and dog walkers while also managing it in a manner that encourages pollinator activity on the property, Public Works Director Tim Kaiser told the committee.
"We've mowed and maintained the walking trail that [Chairman Tom Hyde] laid out earlier in the year, and that seems to be quite a success," Kaiser said. "I see people there quite often.
"We've mowed the strip along the Main Street frontage. But the rest of the non-agricultural land, we let grow wild. It's gone to seed. It's a good habitat for birds and small animals, and it's a good support for pollinators. We recently mowed, as we will every year in the fall after the frost hits so it doesn't become woody."
Hyde agreed that the land is starting to be used for recreation.
"The times I've been there, I've seen a fair number of people walking dogs and walking with kids and a fair number of fisherman," Hyde said. "I think it's beginning to become the town park we want it to be. Hopefully, we'll get FEMA's approval to do what we want to do with the property."
The town has added a couple of trash cans and dog waste receptacles on the site, Kaiser said.
The committee hopes in the near future to be able to add picnic tables and signage to the site, including text that explains the history of the property and honors the community that once thrived there.
But putting anything on the site requires approval from the federal agency.
"We proposed to FEMA six months ago simple things about trash cans, picnic tables and signage," committee member Andrew Hogeland said in a meeting telecast on the town's community access TV station, WilliNet. "They said it would take six months to hear back. That was six months ago, and we haven't heard a word."
FEMA approval will be needed for a Massachusetts Department of Transportation-funded bicycle trail that is planned to run through the Spruces property. Earlier this month, the state agency held its 25 percent design hearing for the project, which will run from a site along the river near the junction of North Street and Syndicate Road east toward the Williamstown-North Adams line. Eventually, the hope is that North Adams will be able to find a route that allows the bicycle path to continue all the way to the current terminus of the Ashuwillticook Trail in Adams.
"If we're lucky, by the end of the year, we might feel it's ripe enough with the bike path design to ask for a meeting [with FEMA]," said Hogeland, also a member of the Board of Selectmen.
In the meantime, the committee discussed working with the town to put a sign at the entrance to the property that lays out a couple of basic rules, like a prohibition against campfires and hunting, a request to leave flora and fauna in place, a restriction against alcohol and, perhaps, posted hours for use of the site.
In addition to the progress that has been made on the 2.3-mile trail throughout the park, a local conservancy group also has made headway in establishing a plantings along an attenuated swale that carries stormwater north to the river.
The Hoosic River Watershed Association last year accomplished the plantings along the swale on the property's southwest corner. In part, the 400 native shrubs and trees are intended to create a habitat for wildlife, and in part they are meant to shade the intermittent stream that was daylighted by MassDOT in 2014.
"The idea was to improve things visually, to make it more attractive for wildlife and pollinators and, I think, particularly, birds," HooWRA's Lauren Stevens told the committee. "Although the amount of water involved [in the swale] is small, we also want to try to do what we can under limited circumstances to cool, by shading, the water before it gets in the river."
Stevens said that his group may be able to remove the blue plastic tubing used to protect new growth from animal browsing as early as next summer.
"The plants have had an amazing survival rate — not just in my opinion but in North Branch Nursery's opinion, too," Stevens said. "We had enough rain last fall to get them well started. And the town provided mulch and some fertilizer. Everything seemed to work out pretty well."
In other business at its October meeting, the Spruces Land Use Committee heard from a proponent of creating a "frolf" or Frisbee-golf course on the property and a Williams College professor whose research has spurred the town's recent efforts to encourage pollinator habitats.
"Adverse land management leads to fragmentation and habitat loss," Joan Edwards told the committee. "The use of pesticides is the other practice that has led to [pollinator] decline. There are consequences that come out of poor management practices. Mowing late [in the season] increases the number of flowers for pollinators."
Edwards was encouraged when members of the committee told her about Kaiser's report on the town's strategy for mowing at the property.
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