Right or wrong path? Townsend divided over proposed rail trail

Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, MA)

June 16, 2008

Author: Damien Fisher

TOWNSEND -- Progress continues on the proposed Squannacook River Rail Trail connecting Townsend to Groton, despite concerns from some residents about the impact of the trail.

"We can't afford it," said Joe Shank, owner of Harbor Auto Body on Main Street.

A feasibility study shows the trail will cost about $4.2 million to complete.

About 150 people attended a public hearing on the feasibility study this past week. The plan did not get a favorable response from some residents.

"I certainly don't want this in my backyard," Main Street resident Sheila Murphy said.

The proposed 3.7 mile trail connecting the center of town to Groton will cut across the back of Shank's business, and the backyards of about 60 homes, according to Dana King.

King, who owns a Main Street self-storage business, said all of the time and energy being put into the bike path would be better used for a sidewalk along the same route.

Plans for a rail trail have been in the works for years, according to Steve Meehan, the chairman of the Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority owns the railroad line running through town. The line has not been used in about 30-years, according to Meehan.

The rail trail would be a paved biking and walking path, spanning between 8 and 10-feet wide, built along the railroad line, according to Meehan.

It has taken years to get the plans to the current stage, according to Meehan.

The committee won approval from the Board of Selectmen in 2006 to move forward on a feasibility study. That was completed by engineering firm Fay, Spofford & Thorndike this month and made available last week, ahead of Thursday's public hearing.

Bill Rideout, another proponent of the rail trail, described the time line for progress on the project as "glacial."

"Nothing moves quickly in the rail-trail community," Rideout said.

Meehan initially got involved, in part, because he wanted a rail trail for his children.

"It might wind up our grandchildren will be the main users," Meehan said.

Meehan and Rideout want the rail trail so children and teens will have a place to ride their bikes. Meehan also hopes the trail will encourage physical activity and an appreciation for nature.

Both Meehan and Rideout see progress despite the slow pace, so does Shank, who wants the committee to change course.

"God bless all these people that they have this time to try and get a rail trail in this town," Shank said.

Shank sees the project as costing the town money it does not have.

"I don't think anybody in their right minds would support a project that will cost the town thousands and thousands of dollars," Shank said.

People living in Townsend are in dire financial straits, Shank said, and cannot afford a luxury like the rail trail.

"People are paying $4 a gallon for gas, people are losing their homes and the economy is in the tank," Shank said.

The committee has identified a federal earmark of $4 million set aside for rail trail projects in North Central Massachusetts, Meehan said.

Shank said most earmarks come with the condition the town pay for 10 percent of the project, or about $420,000.

"Where are we going to get the money to pay for it?" Shank said.

Meehan thinks the money will come together to construct the trail without cost to the town.

"I'm really confidant we can construct this whole trail without any cost to the town," Meehan said.

Selectmen Chair David Chenelle responded to Meehan's recent presentation of the feasibility study by reminding him the town will not pay for any part of the project.

If the federal money available to the town is not enough to complete the project, Meehan said the committee will continue to work with state and federal representatives to get the money somewhere else.

The construction money will not cover the eventual maintenance and repair costs for the trail, Meehan said.

The asphalt laid down on the trial should last for about 12 to 15 years, according to Meehan, before it will need to be re-paved.

"We wouldn't be speaking the truth if we said, 'We can guarantee this will never cost you any money,' " Meehan said.

Cost is part of the opposition from King, the other is privacy.

King knows there are other businesses and homeowners upset by the plan to have bikers and walkers go through their property.

"There are 60 houses within 100 feet of the rail trail," King said. "Some of them are 10 to 12 feet from the trail. I wouldn't want people 10 to 12 feet from my back door."

Rideout said the committee wants to work with abutters to the trail. He said the plans can adapt to the area, with trees and fences blocking the path from the private property.

"We understand the abutters concerns," Rideout said.

Meehan joined the committee in 2003 after attending a meeting to learn about the proposal. The trail was set to go through his backyard at that time.

"I figured if there was something that might abut my property I might want to be involved," Meehan said.

The path has since changed and the trail will not go by Meehan's property under the current proposal, due to potential problems with trestle crossings, Meehan said.

King also worries the rail trail might be used by criminals to gain access to homes along the trail.

Meehan said people using a bike path are not likely to be involved in crime. Most families out for a bike ride also bring cell phones and can report suspicious activity.

"Rail trails tend to be self-policing," Meehan said.

King said countless strangers going by so close to homes is not a good idea.

"Most people would rather have the train going through than bicycles," King said.

While Shank would like to see a trail replace the disused railroad line, he is concerned about costs.

"I don't want to see taxes raised to support this," Shank said. "If the rail people can support this 100 percent and not cost the community a dime, I will support it."