A few bumps along the way
While towns line up backing for a regional recreational path, some area residents see it bringing trouble to their back yards
NEWBURY - Jane Hoey lives on a quiet, leafy side road off another side road in the Byfield section of town, near where the Parker River curls and gushes, and you can occasionally see snapping turtles and great blue herons.
But this idyllic setting could be in danger, she and other residents say, as the Border to Boston Trail is on track to pass through Newbury. And while the recreational trail’s concept is lauded by cyclists, runners, and walkers seeking an alternative to the area’s cramped, winding and often dangerous roads, it has also prompted concerns from some neighboring residents about trash, trespassers, property values, the environment, and a constant parade of people walking, running and cycling right past their houses.
“It’s quiet, out of the way, very rural,’’ said Hoey, who lives on River Street. “It’s just going to change the whole climate.’’
In the works now for more than a decade, the northern stretch of the Border to Boston Trail is expected to connect eight communities between Salisbury and Danvers, creating a continuous, nearly 28-mile swath for nonmotorized traffic along abandoned railroad beds and other rights of way.
Newburyport, Salisbury, Topsfield, and Danvers recently completed portions that will eventually be linked with the system, while more than $1.4 million in design work for a section spanning Salisbury, Newbury, Georgetown, and Boxford is underway, according to Betsy Goodrich, senior transportation planner with the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission.
However, due to the lengthy approval process, intensive planning, design, and construction work, and funding schedules, it remains unclear just when the various portions of the trail will be fully blazed and linked. Throughout the long pro cess, many community members have praised the reinvigoration and conservation of long-defunct rail beds; the feeling is largely shared in regards to numerous projects in the region, including the Northern Strand Community Trail (planned to run through Everett, Malden, Saugus, Revere, and Lynn), others in the works in Haverhill and Everett, and another in preliminary talks in Methuen.
“There’s a lot of support for these trails,’’ said Goodrich, adding that people see the “benefits to livability and mobility.’’
Newbury resident John Van Schalkwyk, for one, is eager for the path to be in place.
An ardent cyclist and a member of his town’s Border to Boston Trail Committee, he pointed out that a resource such as a rail trail could bolster recreation in general, getting people active, and would also provide a “big bump’’ in tourism, thus helping the local economy.
It could be a “phenomenal draw,’’ he said. “The more trails there are, especially when they become interconnected, the more that can become an allure.’’ The trail’s path in Byfield is “quite beautiful to ride or walk through,’’ Van Schalkwyk said.
His view of the area is shared by Hoey and other nearby residents who ultimately don’t want to see that beauty disrupted.
“It’s not an urban area. It’s very rural, with lots of conservation land,’’ she said. “If we wanted an urban area, we would’ve moved to Newburyport.’’
As outlined in the plan, roughly seven-tenths of a mile of the trail will run along a right of way in Byfield owned by National Grid, emerging at Main and Central streets, according to Martha Taylor, Newbury’s town planner.
Because many properties in her neighborhood (and in abutting Georgetown) border the utility company’s power lines that the trail would follow, the residents have concerns centered around property lines, trail placement and loss of privacy; impacts on the environment and the native wildlife; and effects on home values, among other issues, Hoey explained.
Yet even though “this is our backyard,’’ she stressed, “we don’t want to be characterized as NIMBY,’’ an acronym for not-in-my-back-yard sentiments.
Van Schalkwyk and others acknowledged such concerns, noting that some aspects have yet to be worked out, including the issue of parking for people using the trail. But he also pointed to a study by Texas A&M University researchers that found property values actually increase the closer they are to a trail, greenway, or park.
As for cycling, he noted a marked increase in traffic on the area’s roads over the past 25 years that makes it a hazardous hobby - especially for parents wanting to enjoy an afternoon out with their children.
“It’s important for families to have safe areas for bicycling,’’ he said, noting how cars “scream’’ around curves and make crossing local roads problematic. The rail trail, he said, would be an “incredible resource.’’
All told, the project is expected to cost $10 million, according to Goodrich, with communities in the northernmost region having recently received and matched $718,000 in federal funds, for a total of $1.436 million being used for design work.
Fay, Spofford & Thorndike Inc., a Burlington-headquartered engineering and planning firm, is expected to complete the design within two years, Goodrich said, after poring over the area, and analyzing road crossings, bridges and culverts.
The process will include at least two public input sessions. Later, communities will have to vie for construction funding through the Federal Highway Administration on a piecemeal basis, she said.
In the end, the overarching goal is to create a crisscrossing connection of recreational paths, including those under the auspices of the Coastal Trails Coalition.
“There are lots of spokes on a network,’’ said Goodrich. “A larger system of trails is the bigger vision.’’
And in laying the groundwork for that ultimate end, she said, area communities have “done a really excellent job of outreach.’’
She noted how some have had to set aside Community Preservation Act money, or secure leases for land along the trail, both of which require approval by residents. “It’s been in the works for 10 years, it’s not a secret to anybody, not a surprise at all,’’ she said.
But Hoey says otherwise. Not everybody is “on board,’’ she said, and there are questions still unanswered, many of which she’s directed to Newbury’s Planning Board. She’s also doing her own research, and the hope is that the town will hold additional public meetings, Hoey said.
Still, because planning is still preliminary, officials say, some concerns may be premature.
“It’s not something that’s very likely going to be happening even within the next five years,’’ said Taylor.
Goodrich agreed, pointing to the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, which is planned to link Lowell and Framingham along a route that includes Chelmsford and Westford, and is still in the works after 22 years.
“Sometimes these are done quickly; sometimes they take a long time,’’ she said.