Rail trail plan to face political test
By Aaron Wasserman

Sentinel & Enterprise - April 6, 2006

TOWNSEND -- A proposal to construct a 2.5-mile rail trail through town will receive its biggest political test yet at this spring's special election.

The Board of Selectmen has placed a referendum regarding the project on the election ballot. If a majority of voters express their support, the town will explore options for converting the MBTA-owned tracks that run from the Harbor Village Shopping Center, near the Groton town line, west to Depot Street in the town center.

But if a majority vote in opposition, the project will most likely sputter, according to Town Administrator Gregory W. Barnes.

"If the community support isn't there, then it's highly unlikely there would be any future effort for the project," he said Wednesday.

Advocates for the project say it would encourage more foot traffic within the town's shopping districts -- especially among younger people -- and provide elderly residents with more accommodating exercise options.

"One of the nice things about this rail trail, as opposed to a lot around us, is that it connects two of the town's largest population and shopping centers," said Bill Rideout, a member of the Squannacook River Rail-Trail Feasibility Committee, which has studied the trail's creation.

"It's also a very nice recreational walk for older residents in town," he continued. "It's flat, which is better than the state forest trails, which are woody, uneven and more difficult to walk on."

The special election will be held May 10, and will also determine who replaces the Board of Selectmen's departing vice chairman, Peter H. Collins. The referendum is non-binding, meaning the project's approval does not guarantee its construction.

Barnes said the town would first have to secure a lease with the MBTA, which could be cumbersome.

Supporters note, however, that town taxpayers will not have to commit much money to the project, as Congressman John W. Olver last July earmarked about $4 million specifically for bike paths in North Central Massachusetts.

Most likely, the only money that would have to be spent before federal and state aid arrives is about $25,000 for an engineering study, according to the committee's Web site.

One potentially affected resident is Joseph Shank, whose business, Harbor Auto Body, would border the rail-trail. Shank has spoken publicly about the topic several times.

Shank said Wednesday he feels ambivalent about the project's potential effect on abutters' privacy.

"If it were in their backyards, they wouldn't put it there," he said of the proponents. "It's not a place to put a trail. Put it in the woods where people walk."

Rideout countered Wednesday that the committee has offered to build fences or hedges for any affected abutters, if they desire, to preserve their privacy.

Collins, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has said at past board meetings he also opposes the project because he is concerned about the trail's effect on abutters' property values.

Collins was the lone selectmen at the board's March 21 meeting to vote against placing the referendum on the special election's ballot.

Selectman Robert Plamondon said Wednesday he supports the project, but believes that ultimately, the project's fate should lie in the whole town's hands.

"I think this issue has the potential for impacting the entire town, and I think it's important the entire town has a voice about whether or not it proceeds," he said.

Shank said he can settle for that compromise.

"Let the community decide if they have any interest in the project, and I commend the selectmen for doing that," he said of their decision to create the referendum.