By Doug Struck Globe Correspondent
CONCORD -- Henry David Thoreau took walks. He called it “sauntering” around Walden Pond, where he wrote about living in the wilderness between regular strolls into nearby Concord to deliver his dirty laundry to his mother and collect her apple pies.
Time passed, and some of his sauntering trails were covered by a town garbage dump. A large muddy lot at the base of the now-closed dump is occupied by rotting compost piles, mounds of gravel, recycling dumpsters, and logs cleared from the last winter storm. A field of solar panels will bloom there this summer.
Now a proposal to locate a school bus depot there has pitted school officials against a conservation group that wants to preserve the memory of Thoreau's trails. The group, the Walden Woods Project -- started by Eagles rock star Don Henley, a Texan inspired by Thoreau as a teenager -- has made Concord a tempting offer. We’ll pay you $2.8 million, the group says, if the town foregoes stationing its 36 yellow school buses on the land.
“We want to conserve this because of its history, because of the potential for development, because of its key location in conserved land, because of its potential for wildlife and trail connectivity,” said Kathi Anderson, executive director of the Walden Woods Project.
“It’s a landfill. It’s a closed landfill,” averred Maureen Spada, chair of Concord’s elected school committee. “It’s a very appropriate place to park buses.”
The group’s lucrative offer, and the opposing plan to pave over two of the 34 acres and put a three-bay maintenance shop and a hut for the bus drivers on the property, will clash at the annual Town Meeting in late April. Voters will be asked to approve one proposal or the other by a two-thirds vote, and the choice has stoked a sometimes acrimonious dispute in the town of 17,000.
“There are some pretty strong opinions on this,” acknowledged Christopher Whelan, the town manager.
Concord does not take Thoreau and his cherished pond lightly: The name “Thoreau” or “Walden” is on two main streets, a school, and 15 businesses listed in the town phone book, including a liquor store, a nursing home, a mortgage company, and a country club.
The dispute over the planned bus depot is entwined -- as these things often are in small towns -- with other arguments, current and past. When the school board tried to outsource the bus service last year, residents rallied around their familiar drivers and said ‘no.’ The board ruffled more feathers by pushing blueprints for a new high school without a bus depot included on the site, and then by naming the old landfill site as the best spot for the depot.
“We were shocked” when the school committee zeroed in on the former landfill, Anderson said. Sure, it is not so pretty and is “degraded,” she acknowledged. Town residents began dumping garbage there in the mid-1950s. It was closed in 1994 when Concord embraced curbside pickup and started trucking its garbage to Fitchburg.
The garbage mound was sealed in clay, contoured to give it some curves, and planted with wild grass. But it still is a place of last resort for unwanted stuff: the town stores salt and concrete blocks there, the Boy Scouts bring in 500 used Christmas trees each year for mulching, and gardeners haul bags of leaves and shorn grass to add to the richly-odored compost piles.
Thoreau’s steps are buried under tons of old garbage.
“Its obviously not a pristine site,” conceded Whelan, the town manager.
But the Walden Woods Project sees it as a missing piece of the conservation ring surrounding Walden Pond, and has tried to get a restriction on the land for decades.
Anderson suggests the school committee is playing poker: forcing the town voters to choose between putting the depot on the landfill site or outsourcing bus service and their drivers. Spada responds that a committee, which she headed, made an “exhaustive” search of other sites for the school buses, and found none that was not expensive, restricted by zoning, or too near residents who would be bothered by the early-morning chorus of diesel engines.
“This was the best site,” she said. “There is no zoning, no wetlands, no vernal pools” and no close neighbors.
Spada and other supporters say parking the buses at a landfill would hardly sully the Walden experience. The bus pad would be separated by trees from a parking lot for Walden Pond, and the throngs who visit the pond to swim and hike in the summer must walk down into a glacial kettle, out of sight of the old landfill.
She argues that the conservation restriction would bind the property from future uses, such as expanding the composting or erecting wind turbines.
That is the point, Anderson responds.
“If it is not protected, it could become a mini-mall, an office park, a shopping area,” she said. “One hundred years from now, 200 years, what’s going to happen if we don’t protect this landfill?”
Devotees might search Thoreau’s writing for guidance on the question. Anderson shrugs at that effort: “I’ve learned over the last 23 years to not make the assumption that I knew what Henry David Thoreau would think,” she said. He fit well in Concord: “He was a contrarian.”
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