WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College was given a green light last week to build a 1,400-foot long walkway that will connect Spring Street and South Street, creating a long-discussed connection between the town's main commercial hub and its leading cultural institution.
The Conservation Commission on Thursday reviewed plans for the path, which will utilize college property and cross "wet lawn, wet meadow … and wooded wetlands," in the words of Charlie LaBatt, the senior engineer at Guntlow and Associates, which did design work for the college.
Much of the 6-foot wide walk, which crosses Dennison Park Drive and Knolls Road, will be elevated above the ground, as much as four feet in places down to a more typical foot. The western terminus, at South Street, will feature a seating area, and the walk will include signage describing the native plants visible along the way.
"It's a multi-purpose program," said Rita Coppola-Wallace, the college's executive director for design and construction. "It's an environmental walk. We're going to have signage … explaining about the benefits of a wetland, how they benefit the environment. That's the main reason we went through a wetland.
"Many folks have been asking for a more direct route [from Spring Street to South Street]."
The town has talked for years about how to link Spring Street and South Street without requiring people either to drive or walk all the way to Main Street or cut through the densely populated Knolls neighborhood.
With the advent of the new Williams Inn at the bottom of Spring Street, the need for such a connection has become more apparent. And the most obvious vehicular solution — extending Walden Street, which currently runs from Spring to Hoxsey — has met with opposition from South Street residents.
"We're hopeful a couple of cars won't drive around [and visitors to the area instead will walk]," Commissioner Stephanie Boyd said during the discussion of the proposed walk on Thursday night.
The members of the Con Comm were unanimous in their approval of the project after adding some conditions related to environmental protections during construction.
But two residents addressed the commission from the floor of the meeting to ask it to put the brakes on the project.
Angela Russo of Knolls Road questioned the wisdom of a crossing on the narrow, curvy street.
"It seems silly to put a pathway across the road unless you're going to improve Knolls Road completely," Russo said. "People that drive up from Spring Street will come up the hill and around the corner. It takes your breath away watching."
Chairman Lauren Stevens thanked Russo for her comments but noted that traffic control was outside the purview of his commission. He recommended that she take up her concerns with Director of Public Works Tim Kaiser.
LaBatt, though, noted that the new crossing will be well marked and a strip of different material across the road will help give drivers a visual cue.
"As you go around that corner, we thought [the crossing was sited] at the apex of the corner where pedestrians could see in both directions," LaBatt said.
Roger Lawrence of 80 South St. brought several arguments against the project. He questioned the need for a connection between South Street and Spring Street, suggested there are potential routes for a foot path with less environmental impact and asked about potential leaching from materials that will be used to anchor the raised path into the wetlands.
On the last point, the town's conservation agent, Andrew Groff, told Lawrence and the commission that contemporary building materials do not have the same leaching concerns that they have in the past.
"Modern pressure treated material is highly regulated at the federal level," Groff said. "It does not present the threat it once did."
"Are you satisfied the material used at the quantity used will not leach to a harmful degree?" Lawrence asked the commission.
"Personally, I don't find it a troubling consequence," said Stevens, a founding member of the Hoosic River Watershed Association.
Lawrence framed his other two arguments by suggesting the Con Comm do a cost-benefit analysis, saying that, in his opinion, the environmental impact is too great for the potential benefit to be derived from a footpath.
Groff again weighed in.
"This [connection between South Street and Spring Street] is a long-standing community goal," he said. "The Planning Board has expressed interest in such a connection, as has the Chamber of Commerce and numerous other bodies for decades."
Lawrence's argument that there is a better route for the path was countered by the applicant, who noted that the route chosen takes advantage of the topography to create a path that maintains a slope of 3.8 percent or less throughout — which, along with the 6-foot width — allows for full accessibility.
Stevens cut short that argument, though, noting that it's the Con Comm's job to assess the project before it, not brainstorm alternatives.
"You're unlikely to get out of downtown Williamstown without touching wetlands," Stevens told Lawrence.
"If there are other routes that could be better, you're welcome to try to talk [Williams] into it, and the proponent will bring that proposal to us, and we'll rule on it. We'd like to act on this proposal."
The commission did shortly thereafter, adding conditions that limit the impact to the surrounding land during construction, which LaBatt said could begin as soon as this August depending on how long it takes to find a contractor, get a building permit and develop funding for the walk.
In other business on Thursday, the Con Comm approved the college's plan to replace a culvert under Dennison Park Drive and OK'd a request from the Hemlock Brook residents' association to trim some trees on the property that are on the bank of the brook.
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