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Williamstown Con Comm Contemplates Adding a Trail on Conserved Parcel

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Conservation Commission decided to hold off on a proposal to install a new trail on one of the parcels under its control until it has more information about potential environmental impacts.
At its July 9 meeting, the commission discussed a request from a former member of its body to install a trail on the Deans Lot, a 47-acre parcel off White Oaks Road.
Commissioner Henry Art argued that while a hiking trail has benefits, those do not come without a cost. And in this case, he was concerned about protected species on the parcel that could be adversely impacted.
"Since there are a handful, literally, probably five to seven plants on the state list, some of which are being monitored, I think [the commonweath's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program] needs to weigh in on whether we need additional trails or whether the trails would constitute a diminution of the conservation value of the property," Art said. "There are state-listed plants there that could be harmed, and it might represent a taking should that be a site for further trail development."
Robert Hatton, a former member of the committee, reached out to two members of the panel to ask if he could submit maps for a potential trail. The commission agreed that it should at least wait to have the maps in hand before taking further action.
Art made a more philosophical argument for going slow.
"I am concerned about impromptu trails popping up on conservation land," he said during the commission's virtual meeting on July 9. "I think those need to be carefully managed. I know there's a reaction that tails are good, but trails are not completely benign.
"They do allow people access in an orderly fashion, but they also represent corridors for invasive species. They are disruptive to certain species. They're not just a universal good. They're kind of a necessary thing to have to keep people from trampling all over the place, and they certainly have great benefits. But I think we need to be, particularly as stewards of conservation land in Williamstown, aware that there probably is a point at which you have a sufficient number of trails, and beyond that we're starting to detract, rather than add to, the ecological functioning and people's enjoyment."
Art said he would be averse to taking any action on the proposal until the commonwealth's endangered species program has a chance to weigh in.
The NHESP also is working with the town on a plan to conserve a parcel on the north side of the Green River across from the former Photech Mill, Town Conservation Agent Andrew Groff told the commission this month.
As part of the continuing effort to complete an east-west bike trail from the Spruces Park to North Street, the town needs to develop land near Linear Park where the hairy-fruited sedge, a species of conservation need, is present.
The town agreed to place the acreage near Cole Avenue in permanent conservation to compensate for any disruption to the habitat at Linear Park, Groff said.
"The most straightforward methodology for the town to put a conservation restriction on it and maintain a semblance of control is to have this parcel sent into the care, custody and control of the Conservation Commission, Groff said.
"I think this will be a nice asset to our group of properties. It will be a little different than some of the other ones. It's really not intended for public access but intended for long-term management of a rare and endangered species."
The town acquired the riverside parcel as part of the Photech Mill site, which was taken in a tax proceeding decades ago and currently is being developed as affordable housing.
"It was connected at a point here in the middle of the river to the original Photech property," Groff said, indicating for the commissioners on a map displayed during the meeting. "And when Photech Mill was taken for taxes a number of years ago, this parcel was included. But it was never used by the mill from what we can tell. There's no pollution.
"According to the folks at NHESP … there's some really nice populations of the sedge over there, and under the permit for the bike path, there's significant management that we'll have to do long term with controlling invasive species, hand-cutting and making sure those populations survive."
Groff said he expects a warrant article at the Aug. 18 town meeting to enable the transfer of the town-owned site to the Con Comm.
Another of its existing nine properties, Margaret Lindley Park, also was on the agenda at the early July meeting.
Groff used the meeting to check in with the commissioners after the commonwealth released its current guidance around beaches.
The town did not fill the pond at Margaret Lindley this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings. Although the commonwealth now allows groups of up to 10 at beaches, it still mandates that those groups stay 12 feet from one another.
"If the Con Comm would like to vote for us to open the swimming area, that is your prerogative to do so," Groff said. "If you do, we will post in multiple places at the park the guidelines and the guidance. But I want to make it clear we have limited ability to enforce it."
Groff explained that the town has one park ranger and does not have the manpower to keep full-time monitors at the site during daylight hours to monitor the parking lot or ensure that only town residents access the beach, as some other towns have done.
"It's not like it's in the budget for the DPW to do overtime," he said. "I absolutely do not want the police department down there. And we have a Board of Health agent, but … we're very limited."
Several of the commissioners expressed regret that the pond was not filled (though the park is open for hiking) as the weather gets hotter. But no one was interested in ordering the pond filled while there is no social-distancing enforcement mechanism in place.
"My concern is that no one would listen to [the park ranger], and you'd have 40 kids running back and forth," Katherine Wolfgang said. "I used to take my kids there all the time. It's very sad not to open it, but I feel like we'd be part of the [COVID-19 transmission] problem..
Art said that long ago, there was a fee to use the park, and the fee was used to hire lifeguards, a job his own children held in summers past.
"Then it was felt that the amount of money that was coming in wasn't sufficient to hire the staff that would be there, so we went to a 'swim at your own risk' model and no fee," Art said.
Another difference from years past: The town used to have a Recreation Committee, Art said. The park was managed by both the Con Comm and the Rec Committee — the former in charge of the land and the latter in charge of the use by swimmers.
The Recreation Committee's duties were assumed by the Select Board, much as it also serves as the town's alcohol licensing body and cemetery commission.
"I'd hate to see the Conservation Commission become the de facto Board of Health and Recreation Committee," Art said. "To me, this is something [the Select Board] should be responsible for and come to us if they want it open.
"We have never managed the recreational operations. It's always been a cooperative effort between the Conservation Commission as the landowner, in effect, and the Recreation Committee, however that might be constituted. We never hired the high school students as a Conservation Commission. That was the Recreation Committee."
Groff agreed to convey the message to the Select Board that the Conservation Commission wish for the town to decide whether it can find the funds to staff the park ad enforce capacity limits.

Tags: conservation commission,   public parks,   trails,   

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