Groton, Townsend consider converting rail bed to trail

Not all neighbors are keen on plan

By Matt Gunderson, Globe Correspondent  |  Boston Globe - November 11, 2007

GROTON - Fierce rivalry among railroads companies in the 1800s drove a glut of rail bed construction, when train transportation was the most common means of getting around. After that era ended and automobiles took over, abandoned rail beds became a common sight across the state, their railroad ties torn up or hidden beneath overgrown grass.

Political momentum began building years ago to convert the old rail beds into biking and walking paths. For Bruce Easom, a Groton resident, such a transformation is finally taking place in West Groton and Townsend, where an abandoned rail bed has been dormant for decades.

Bureaucratic delays can often delay the reconstruction of rail beds to rail trails. But with funding starting to fall into place recently, Easom hopes that the 3.3-mile local rail trail may open as early as 2011.

Easom, who is part of the Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee, a loose-knit entity of Townsend and Groton residents, may have reason to be optimistic.

Groton Town Meeting approved $10,000 in funding last week for an engineering and environmental assessment study of its 0.9-mile section of the trail, a move that is being viewed as a first step in getting the rail bed reconstruction launched. Townsend recently received a $20,000 grant from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to perform its portion of the study, which will identify any potential engineering or environmental roadblocks before formal planning and design gets underway.

The project has also received blessings at the legislative level. Representative John Olver, an Amherst Democrat, announced a federal bill in 2005, which has earmarked $4 million for four rail trail projects in North Worcester County, including the Squannacook project, said Easom.

If the trail is built, it could comprise the first phase of a project, and might eventually connect from Townsend's trail to Mason, N.H., where a renovated rail trail spans northward into Greenville, N.H., said Easom.

Local, state, and federal officials have been on a mission for years to put the rail trails to better use, and the paths that have been completed across the state have proved popular with walkers, commuters, skaters, and cyclists.

Currently, at least one other rail trail project is underway in the area, the Bruce Freeman Trail, a 25-mile trail that is expected to extend from Lowell to Framingham.

The rail bed in West Groton and Townsend, which was built in the late 1840s, was abandoned in 1979. These days, the bed, which parallels the Squannacook River through West Groton, is shrouded with overhanging trees and serves only as a pathway for fisherman and recreationists along the river.

Easom and others on his committee see big changes for the rail bed, even though they expect to face concerns among neighbors in both towns.

Elaine Martin, who lives on Main Street in Townsend, is opposed to the rail trail project there. She said the end of her patio is 35 feet from the center of the rail trail. From her house, across the rail trail, one can see a scenic view of a nearby Harbor Pond, where she and her husband have seen beavers swimming and even an eagle. The renovation of the rail trail would not only threaten the natural habitat at the pond but also potentially affect the resale of their home, she said.

"Our whole house is predicated on the pond view," said Martin. "Every morning, we'd wake up to people biking and walking in our backyard."

Martin said she is also concerned about the cost of the project to local taxpayers for a trail that might extend only between Groton and Townsend. "It might just be a dead end trail," she said.

Bill Rideout, a Townsend resident who is also on the rail project committee, said neighbors to the trail in Townsend have voiced opposition the project early on, but he believes the negativity is normal for any rail trail project.

"I know there will be some opposition," he said. "I don't think we have any more problems than any other rail trail."

In Groton, residents seem more comfortable with the thought of a rail trail, perhaps because the town already has one, the Nashua River Rail Trail, running through the center of town, said Easom. The West Groton section of the proposed trail also has fewer abutters than Townsend's section, and the distance between lot lines and the trail are also greater in those cases than in Townsend, he added.

One Groton resident who opposes the Squannacook rail trail is Elena Lazaris.

Lazaris, who lives in the neighborhood, wrote on a townwide message board that she had reservations about parking at the trail site as well as the real benefit to the town of renovating the rail bed in West Groton.

"Articles I've read specific to this project talk about bringing tourists to the area, increasing patronage to stores, restaurants, and hotel," Lazaris wrote.

"Since West Groton has none of these except Clover Farm, what real benefit would there be for this area aside from possible increase in business for Townsend residents?"

Easom said that in Groton, initial reluctance about the Nashua River trail had surfaced in the form of fears about criminal activity and vandalism, but crime has been negligible on the path, said Easom.

"It's become a real asset for the town," he said.

Rideout said there is some concern about eventually linking the trail to Mason because of the presence of ATVs on the New Hampshire trail.

Another option might be to extend the rail trail the opposite direction from West Groton to Ayer, which would link the path with the Nashua River Rail Trail, he said.

"We wouldn't like to see ATVs getting into" Townsend, he said.