Squannacook River Rail Trail options explored

By Anne O'Connor
Article Launched: 06/24/2008 01:20:56 PM EDT

TOWNSEND -- "It's been controversial," agreed Bill Rideout, a member of the Squannacook River Rail Trail Committee.

Rideout's comment came just before the start of a public information meeting about the Rail Trail, held June 12 at North Middlesex Regional High School.

Over 100 residents of Townsend and Groton, among others, were on hand for the meeting. Jen Shemowat and John Hendrickson of the consulting firm Fay, Spofford and Thorndike (FST), presented an environmental and engineering assessment of the proposed trail.

"This is the first opportunity to get technical information about questions that people might have," said Peter Cunningham, a committee member and Groton selectman, during the introduction.

The proposed 3.7 mile trail runs through 2.8 miles in Townsend and 0.9 miles in Groton. Shemowat said that five topics are important in designing a successful Rail Trail -- transportation, connectivity, recreation, health and conservation.

The proposed trail uses an existing rail bed, owned by the MBTA, that follows the river and parts of Route 119. Use of the trail will allow walkers, bicyclists and other users to follow Route 119 while remaining safe from traffic. In the future, the trail may connect with the Nashua River Rail Trail, enabling users to get from the train station in Ayer and to Nashua, N.H.

The multi-use path may be used year round and will be designed for wheelchair accessibility. Shemowat said impermeable asphalt would most likely be used for the surface. MassHighway recommends asphalt, since it caps any contamination that may already be present in the rail bed. If faced with historical or environmental issues, another surface covering could be used in some sections, Shemowat said.

The surface width would vary between 8 and 10 feet of usable surface, with 2 to 3 feet of natural-surface shoulders on the sides. Wooden guardrails could be used where there is a drop-off. The old rail and ties would be removed, except perhaps in the historic district planned in the Townsend Harbor section.

The five road crossings would be designed with the safety of trail users in mind. Two trestle bridges, both in Townsend Harbor, could be retained and redesigned to conform to trail usage needs.

The corridor goes through several sensitive wildlife and wetlands areas. As part of the study process, FST has sent letters to the organizations controlling these lands, to enable planners to work on protecting the land the trail will pass through.

Following the presentation, the floor was opened to questions. Residents expressed concerns about parking and privacy. Shemowat identified areas where parking could be developed on publicly owned land and said that some local users would access the trail from road crossings.

Signage, fencing and vegetation can be used as mitigation measures to retain the privacy of abutters to the trail. MassHighway would pay for construction of reasonable mitigation requests, according to FST's report.

The study considered possible funding sources to construct the trail, at an estimated cost of $4.3 million. However, once the trail is built, the towns will be responsible for ongoing maintenance, Shemowat said.

Several residents questioned the risks of increased trash and unauthorized access.

The Nashua River Rail Trail, which runs from Ayer to Nashua, was held up as an example. Volunteers hold periodic clean-ups and Marion Stoddard, of Groton, said the corridor is much cleaner now that people are using it.

Groton Chief of Police Donald Palma said most of the calls his department receives about the trail are due to people not locking their cars.

No final decisions about the Rail Trail have been made by either town.

"The whole point of this is to decide what to do next," Shemowat said.